By: Dan Kolko
The baseball schedule can be a grueling one.
This year, the Nationals will play 162 regular season games in 182 days. The road trips are long. The nights in hotel rooms add up quickly. The days off, especially the days off at home, can be few and far between.
That’s why most players rely on their families to help get them through the tough times. Parents, siblings, wives, children — they all help to provide a support system, a base that players can lean on during the long season.
And for many Nationals players, that family, that base, isn’t complete without a canine as well.
As fans have noticed over the years, thanks to the Nationals’ popular pet calendar and player Instagram posts, players like Gio Gonzalez, Jayson Werth and Max Scherzer have added dogs to their home setups. In some cases, those pups have gained a bit of a celebrity status of their own.
Werth’s gigantic Great Dane, Magnus, was even featured in a Nationals Park giveaway this season. The first 20,000 fans that came to the game on June 27 received a figurine of Jayson and Magnus, who is shown standing on his hind legs, nearly looking eye-to-eye with his owner.
When asked if Magnus is aware of his level of popularity in the D.C. area, Werth smiles.
“I’ve told him,” he says. “I think he’s that kind of dog anyways. Whenever somebody comes over, they’re coming over to see him.”
Magnus is one of two dogs the Werths own; the other is a German Shorthaired Pointer named Gunner, who Werth says isn’t nearly as social as his larger counterpart.
Magnus has made a handful of appearances at Nationals Park in the past, though his presence has been less frequent this year.
“I usually save him for when we need him,” Werth jokes. “The old ‘rally dog.’”
Gonzalez’s French Bulldog, Stitch, has become a frequent visitor at the Nationals’ Spring Training complex, and also sometimes accompanies his owner into the Nats’ home clubhouse in D.C. Every appearance by the dark-coated pup leads to teammates, coaches and team personnel flocking around, making Stitch the center of attention.
“I know the chefs love him. I know that,” Gonzalez says with a laugh. “He hangs out in the kitchen all day long. He’s like, ‘You’ve gotta go to work? I’ve gotta go to work, too! I’m gonna go crush this bacon spread out here.’ But they love him. Everyone that sees him loves him. He snores really loud. He sounds like a little pig running around. He’s real friendly, friendly with kids. Personality-wise, I wouldn’t trade him for any other dog in the world.”
Only recently has Gonzalez added another dog to the mix — another French Bulldog, named Kylo.
“He’s got more of the energy,” Gonzalez says. “He’s a full-time ‘Red Bull’ the whole time. He’s full throttle. And Stitch is more laid-back. But Kylo’s still a puppy.
“Both of them now are in boot camp. This is the first time in my life I’ve ever seen Stitch lay down, stay still, and stay by someone’s side. You can see this joy in Stitch’s face, this joy where he actually wants to go to these boot camps.”
While Kylo and Stitch are only now going through the boot camp classes, Scherzer’s three dogs — Bo, Rafi and Rocco — have already graduated. Scherzer and his wife, Erica, got the pups (all of which were adopted from shelters) off-leash trained, allowing them to take the trio out and about, even on crowded D.C.-area streets.
“I’m able to go down any major road, and they heel,” Scherzer says. “And I get on a bike and I have them heel and we can march down anywhere. As long as there’s a sidewalk, we can cross anywhere. They know how to sit at stoplights. And once we get to bike paths, dog trails, they know that once I say, ‘Free!’ they can kind of roam and chase anything they want.”
Scherzer is well-known throughout the baseball community for having two different colored eyes, a genetic anomaly called heterochromia iridum. The condition affects roughly 1-in-500 humans.
In the Scherzer household, however, heterochromia iridum affects three of five living creatures. Two of Scherzer’s dogs, Bo and Rocco, have it, as well.
“You wouldn’t believe the number of people who send pictures to me of dogs with two different colored eyes saying I should adopt this one,” Scherzer says. “I get a lot of ’em. So that’s how we found all three of (our dogs).”
Scherzer’s love for dogs, and for pets in general, isn’t just lip service. It led him to take part in charitable work for The Humane Society’s “Pets for Life” program, which helps pet owners in underserved communities get access to affordable pet care.
“A dog will love anybody,” Scherzer says. “As soon as you go up to a dog and pet it on its ears and show it love, it will instantly love you back. They’re incredible creatures. Just how much trust they build with you and understand you, it’s just been awesome having three.”
For Werth, leaving for road trips means not just saying goodbye to his wife and two sons, but also his dogs. And those goodbyes don’t exactly sit well with Magnus.
“Those dogs don’t live that long,” Werth said of Great Danes. “So when I leave for a long road trip, I think it’s longer for him than for anybody else. You can tell he’s the most hurt. He misses me more than anybody else. He’s only going to live for like 7-8 years. So I think the time is different for those dogs.”
The Gonzalez family unit has grown significantly in the last year. Not only did Kylo get brought home last winter, Gio’s fiancee, Lea, gave birth to the couple’s first child, a boy named Enzo, this spring.
When a long road trip ends, and Gonzalez is able to return home, he says having that support system there to greet him helps bring everything into perspective.
“I think just seeing my entire family around is awesome — Lea, Enzo and the dogs,” Gonzalez says. “It’s almost like everything you’re worried about at the field, you come home and it’s a weight off your shoulders. You get to smile and just be yourself and relax. And I think that’s the joy of having a family like that. The dogs kind of put the icing on the cake.”
Tuesday night at Nationals Park, Nationals right-hander Lucas Giolito – arguably the best pitching prospect in the game – will make his Major League debut vs. the New York Mets. During Spring Training, his first in Major League camp with the Nationals, Giolito answered a few questions about the upcoming season. The following is a transcript of his answers to six of those questions:
What are your goals heading into the season?
I’m just here to take it all in. It’s my first big league camp — I’m not coming into it with expectations of making the team or anything like that. It’s all about the experience. I want to be able to pick the brains of these awesome coaches and these decorated players who have been playing in the big leagues for a long time. Just try to take it all in and learn from the best.
What do you want to learn from the other members of the pitching staff?
As a rookie, I don’t want to come in there and talk too much and annoy anybody, obviously. Hopefully I can hang around, hear little bits of wisdom or knowledge, and try to put that into my game.
After seeing Joe Ross jump from Double-A to the Major League rotation last year, does that give you any added confidence?
Joe’s a really good player. He was in Harrisburg not too long before I got there last year, so I know that jump is possible. And if I were to start in Harrisburg this year it would be great if I put up some good numbers, pitched well and got an opportunity later in the year.
Did you pick up any big differences between Single-A and Double-A last season?
Hitters are more disciplined — that’s probably the biggest thing I noticed. They’re not only disciplined with balls out of the strike zone, but they pick a certain pitch in the zone that they want to hit. So, as long as you can stay away from those spots, pitching at the higher level can actually become a little bit easier — but it requires really good pinpoint control, which I’m still trying to develop.
What is your current pitch repertoire?
I’ve got my four-seam fastball and my two-seam fastball, which I’m trying to introduce this year. I’m excited about that pitch and I’ve been tinkering with it here and there. The change-up has been developing a lot and my curveball as well. I just want to be able to throw all of those pitches for strikes at any time in the count. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable doing that with the change-up and curveball, and I want to command the fastball low and away, low and in and even up at times as well.
How was the process of recovering from Tommy John surgery with the Nationals organization?
After being hurt in high school and getting drafted in the first round despite that, it was a tough decision whether to go to college or to sign. But I feel like I made an excellent choice signing back in 2012. The rehab process from Tommy John with the Nationals was perfect — I had no issues throughout the whole process. It’s awesome that I’m fully healthy.
Right-hander Rafael Martin made his Major League debut on Wednesday in impressive fashion: striking out five consecutive Red Sox batters in two scoreless innings of work. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Martin became the first reliever to strikeout five consecutive batters in his debut since Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Pete Richert did it on April 12, 1962. He is also the first Nationals pitcher (starter or reliever) to strikeout at least five straight batters in his MLB debut since Stephen Strasburg struck out seven straight on June 8, 2010.
Interview by Charlie Slowes
What was going through your mind during your big league debut?
It was an adrenaline rush — it felt good to get out there finally. It’s been a long wait to make my debut, something that I will never forget. The five strikeouts, it just happens. I didn’t really plan on striking everybody out, I was just throwing fastballs trying to have them put them in play and things worked out.
Did the Red Sox have trouble seeing your sinker ball?
Escobar told me, “Hey the shadows are bad, just throw it, let it go.” So I just kept pounding fastballs, not trying to cheat anybody, see what happens. He was saying, “I can’t see the ball, so I don’t think they can either,” so I just kept pounding the zone.
How did it feel to debut in such a historic ballpark like Fenway Park?
Debut, Jackie Robinson Day, the (somber anniversary) of (the Boston Marathon bombings), it was really neat, something l will never forget.
You’ve taken a unique path to the big leagues. How did it all happen?
Out of high school, I didn’t even play varsity until my senior year. (I was) definitely a late bloomer. Out of high school, I worked construction for five years, and then I played a game in Tecate, Mexico and a scout saw me and invited me for a tryout. I went out there, tried out, they (the Mexican League team) signed me, three years later the Nationals bought my contract, and five years later I get to make my debut. So it was definitely a long story — not your typical story — but I’m finally here and it’s awesome.
Did you play any kind of baseball during those years you were working construction?
I was playing Sunday ball, like rec leagues. All of my buddies from high school are guys that I played with. I played a lot of softball during the week too, two to three times a week, slow pitch softball. It was fun, I was enjoying it and making good money working construction.
Was it difficult to battle injuries through your first few years?
In 2010, my first year here, I did really well. In 2011, I had some issues coming off of my first real offseason because I played year round in Mexico. I came back to Spring Training, had little issues getting back on track. In 2012 I got the big league (training camp) invite and just kind of struggled out of the gate. I went to Syracuse, cold weather, had some issues, shoulder problems, surgeries in 2012 and 2013 and last year I was finally healthy. It paid dividends, and all my hard work paid off.
Did Spring Training help prepare you for your debut?
Finally, after three years it was the first Spring Training where I could come in healthy and ready to give it all I’ve got and fight for a job. It was a very short chance but I had to open some eyes and show them what I could do.
What was the day like when you finally got called up this year?
It was a save situation. I was the closer there and I didn’t come in. He had Evan Meek pitch, and I was kind of weirded out by it…I was like, “Why was I not closing this game?” I didn’t think much of it, after the game I just gave high fives to the guys in the clubhouse, and the pitching coach, Bob Milacki called me, he was like, “Come here,” into the office and (Syracuse Manager) Billy Gardner just said. “Hey, you’re going to Boston.” I kind of looked around at everybody like, “Are you guys joking, what’s going on?” It was kind of unique. I was really surprised by it.
How was the trip to Boston?
I left at 6 a.m. from Lehigh (Pa.), layover in Philly, and got into Boston around 10 a.m. I waited around the hotel (until they made the move official) and then I got the call that I could go to the ballpark. I was kind of like, “All right let’s do this.” It was fun.
How did your family react to you moving up to the big leagues?
(My wife) had to drive from Scranton to Lehigh Sunday night, Tuesday morning drive to Lehigh to Boston and after the game Boston to here (D.C.), I kind of felt bad for her but it’s adrenaline for her too. Hopefully (the rest of my family) makes it out Tuesday for the game, and they can enjoy this with me too. My dad is one of those guys who doesn’t break easily, and I got him to tear up so it made me proud too.
With Spring Training games beginning on Saturday, we’re taking the final few practice days of camp to take a closer look at some of the more interesting stories among this year’s Non-Roster Invitees. We wrap up our series with story of pitcher-turned-position-player Micah Owings.
The story of Rick Ankiel’s conversion from a former top prospect pitcher to a successful Major League outfielder is well known to fans of the Nationals. Ankiel played his past two seasons in a Washington uniform, patrolling center field with his cannon arm and showing flashes of the pop that led him to 25 home runs back in 2008. But the main reason that Ankiel’s transition was so notable was how rarely it has ever been accomplished. In Micah Owings, the Nationals have another player making the leap this season.
Owings showed promise on the mound, though he compiled a fairly average 32-33 record and 4.82 ERA over his six years. But the signs of his potential as a hitter have always been there. He still holds the Georgia state high school record for career home runs as a prepster, and carried that success at the plate with him into the professional ranks. Owings burst onto the Major League scene with a .333/.349/.683 line, blasting four home runs and seven doubles in just 64 plate appearances in his rookie campaign of 2007 to win the Silver Slugger Award.
In fact, despite generally receiving only a couple of plate appearances every five days, he owns a career .283 batting average and .503 slugging percentage, both marks higher than many Major League regulars. Now 30, Owings has decided to try to get the most out of what his body has left and make an honest run at converting to an everyday player.
“It was just to find out what kind of abilities I really have,” he explained of his decision to make the permanent switch. “I don’t want to look back 15-20 years from now and say ‘what if I would have tried it?’”
The idea for the change was in the works for a while before Owings finally pulled the trigger. But with a number of familiar faces from his Arizona days in Nationals camp – both on and off the field – the Nationals seemed like a perfect club to take the leap with.
“There are a lot of great guys, and they’ve been receptive,” said Owings of his new teammates easing his transition. “Even being in a different Spring Training zone. I’m used to being in Arizona for Spring Training. So totally being able to separate, being down here in Florida has been great. I’m really looking forward to it as camp develops.”
As for a position in the field, Owings is content to fit in wherever he can. Manager Davey Johnson has been impressed with what he’s seen so far, and obviously has no concerns about his new project’s arm strength. But at 6’5” and 220 pounds, don’t expect Owings to follow in Ankiel’s footsteps in center field any time soon.
“I don’t want to compare myself to him – he’s a great athlete,” said Owings of Ankiel, though he has tapped the trailblazer for his advice. “I was able to pick his brain last Spring Training, when I was kind of chewing on it. He shed some insight. I didn’t even have to say anything, he just said “Do it,” because he knew what I wanted to talk about.”
That reassurance, plus the confidence he will build with every game, every at-bat, every swing here in Spring Training has Owings optimistic about the process. He also looks forward to bringing a more mature approach to learning the other half of the game at the highest level.
“I’m just focusing in on the things I can control,” he said. “A lot of those things that we can’t control as players – umpires, calls, errors – those ate me up from a pitching standpoint early on. Hopefully I can remember that heading into this path.”
Owings won’t have to wait long for his first opportunity. He’s slated to DH, bat ninth, and play the full nine innings in Washington’s spring opener against the Mets Saturday afternoon.
With Spring Training games beginning on Saturday, we’re taking the final few practice days of camp to bring you a closer look at some of the more interesting stories among this year’s Non-Roster Invitees. Today, we learn more about one of the most compelling personalities in the group, pitcher Ross Ohlendorf.
When it comes to the 6-foot-4, 240-pound pitcher with the power sinker, Ross Ohlendorf looks the part of the professional athlete. Born in Austin, Texas, he serves as a ranch-hand on his father’s farm in the offseason, where they raise longhorns. With huge hands and a bullish frame, he fits right into a throwing line of Nationals power pitchers, firing darts across an open expanse of outfield grass along the practice fields behind Space Coast Stadium.
However, Ohlendorf’s story does not end there. Not even close.
Athletes are sometimes thought of simply in terms of the game they play, but a quick look at Ohlendorf’s resume – his degree from Princeton (the same alma mater as the recently signed Chris Young) in Operations Research and Financial Engineering, along with internships in the office of finance at the University of Texas and another with the Department of Agriculture in D.C. – dispels that notion quickly. In fact, after being drafted following his junior year, he penned a 140-page senior thesis while playing his first season of minor league ball. The topic, given his major, had to be rooted in mathematics, statistics or finance. Ohlendorf knew just the thing.
“The (MLB) Draft was really relevant at the time, so that’s what I decided to focus on,” he explained. “A lot of people would talk about how much players were getting paid as a signing bonus and say they were getting paid too much or not paid enough, so I decided to do a study to try to estimate how it’s worked out for teams.”
He analyzed the top 100 picks over a five-year period, then analyzed the return on the initial investment over the next 12 years of the players’ careers. If that sounds like the kind of thing that would make him a prime candidate to follow in the footsteps of players-turned-executives like Billy Beane, perhaps so. But all that talk is a little premature for Ohlendorf. He’s still got plenty of baseball left in his arm.
“I’m not sure yet,” he said, laughing, about the prospect of someday moving into the front office for a team. “It’s definitely something that would interest me, but I’m not really thinking that far ahead right now.”
Indeed. For now, Ohlendorf provides some of that starting pitching depth that EVP of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo has been talking about all offseason. Of course, Rizzo was the Director of Scouting for Arizona when the Diamondbacks first selected and signed Ohlendorf in the fourth round of the 2004 First-year Player Draft. If Ohlendorf’s familiarity with Rizzo – as well as former teammates like Tyler Clippard and Micah Owings – wasn’t enough to sell him on Washington, his throwing partner this offseason was fellow NRI Bill Bray.
“That really makes the transition easier,” said Ohlendorf of the familiarity across different levels of the Nationals organization, his sixth. “I’ve really, really enjoyed Spring Training so far. It’s well done, and people really like each other here. It’s such a great environment here.”
Ohlendorf’s internship experience, as well as his five seasons spent pitching in the National League, have also brought him to the Nation’s Capital a number of times. He even lived near Capitol Hill for his 10-week internship with the USDA, which was mornings only, so he could go through his baseball workouts in the afternoon.
“I really liked it,” he said of his stint in Washington. “And I’ve really liked it when I’ve gone to play against the Nationals, too. It’s one of my favorite cities.”
While the positive Spring Training environment and the prospect of pitching in Washington help, perhaps the real reason Ohlendorf projects so much positivity about camp this year is internal. With 108 Major League appearances (73 starts) under his belt, the 30-year-old is happy to be fully healthy and feels particularly good about his physical well-being going into the spring.
“I’m really excited about this season, it’s the best I’ve felt in a long time,” he explained. “I think part of the reason I feel so good, having stayed healthy last year, my arm feels even better this year. My workouts have changed a little bit each offseason and I feel like I’ve improved my diet this year, which I think has helped.”
The more he has focused on his workouts and his nutrition over the years, the less Ohlendorf has paid attention to his own personal numbers. And while discovering more about the statistical intricacies of the game he plays has been an intellectually stimulating project, as a player, Ohlendorf has learned not to overanalyze his own metrics and simply focus on what he can control.
“I do think they have a lot of value,” Ohlendorf said of the figures that formed the basis of his thesis. “But I’ve kind of found, for me as a player, I don’t think it does me much good, and it can do me harm to worry too much about my stats.”
As Crash Davis lectured Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham, sometimes it’s better to not think, and just throw. However intricate and complex his intellectual pursuits are off the field, Ohlendorf is content taking that basic game plan into this season.
“Each game I try to pitch as deep into the game as I can and I try to get a win,” he said. “Just keep it simple.”
With Spring Training games beginning on Saturday, we’re taking the final few practice days of camp to take a closer look at some of the more interesting stories among this year’s Non-Roster Invitees. We start things off by getting to know lefty reliever Bill Bray.
By this point, you’re probably tired of hearing the story of the first-round draft pick raised in Virginia Beach, out of college in Virginia, who moved quickly through the system, making his way into a Nationals uniform. That tale, the one usually ascribed to Ryan Zimmerman, has been told many times, as he has grown into the face of the Nationals franchise. But one year prior, another player matching the same description began a very different journey, one that has, after nearly a decade, landed him back in the same clubhouse here in Viera.
Bill Bray is a name likely familiar to Nationals fans who have been following the franchise since its relocation. After being selected 16th overall in the 2004 First-year Player Draft, the final one in Expos history, he made it to his Major League debut two days before his 23rd birthday in a road game at Milwaukee. The lefty threw a single pitch, upon which Corey Koskie, the runner at first, was gunned down trying to take second base, ending the eighth inning with Washington trailing, 3-2.
Zimmerman – who Bray faced in both high school and college – led off the top of the ninth with a single, and two batters later Brian Schneider took Derrick Turnbow deep for a two-run shot to give Washington the lead. Chad Cordero closed out the ninth, and Bray earned a win in his first Major League appearance, throwing just one pitch without retiring a batter.
The southpaw appeared in relief 19 times in the 2006 season before being flipped to the Reds in an eight-player deal that netted the Nationals Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez and Ryan Wagner. Now he returns to a team that has grown during his absence to one of the strongest in the game.
“It’s a great feeling to be back in a Nationals uniform, and at the same time all these memories just come flooding back,” Bray said of walking into the home clubhouse in Viera for the first time in seven years. “It’s weird, almost like you’re seeing some ghosts walking around.”
Bray was raised in the system with the likes of Ian Desmond and Roger Bernadina, but watched them blossom into everyday players from afar. Meanwhile, he has spent the past six years with Cincinnati, carving out a role for himself as a left-handed specialist, though his numbers against righties have been respectable as well.
“I don’t care if it’s a lefty or a righty up at the dish, I’m going to go at them the same way, I’m going to attack, and I’m going to get them out,” he explained, but also acknowledged the necessity of left-handed pitching for a team like the Nationals. “I think it’s a very important job, especially in the NL East with some of the lefties that we’re going to see and face.”
Bray is already embracing the role he hopes to carve out for himself over the next six weeks. He’s thrilled to have the chance to come back to Washington as well, the organization that signed him, and the one closest to his childhood home.
“Besides the baseball, we love D.C.,” Bray said of himself and his family. “Being from Virginia, my wife and I lived in D.C. for a couple years before we moved to Texas and we really enjoyed it.”
But ultimately, Bray’s driving force to return to Washington came from the knowledge that he had the chance to fill one of the lone remaining openings on a team with high aspirations this season.
“I know if I go out there and I’m healthy, I’m going to do my job,” Bray said, matter-of-factly. “That has always been the key for me is just staying on the field. I’m expecting to be healthy this year, I’m expecting to do my job, and I’m expecting to win the spot.”