In Nationals’ ‘Spring Breakout’ game, nerves and talent share stage

In Nationals’ ‘Spring Breakout’ game, nerves and talent share stage

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Travis Sykora will remember a few things from his first professional appearance Friday. When Dave Martinez put his hand on the right-hander’s heart, the Washington Nationals manager said it was going “1,000 miles [an hour].” When Sykora signed baseballs with the rest of the team, fellow right-hander Cole Henry had to kindly tell him to sign his name smaller so everyone else’s autograph could fit on the ball.

And, after Sykora returned from his inning of work, a coach handed the 6-foot-6, 2023 third-round pick a glass of water. That’s when Sykora noticed something strange.

“My hand was shaking. My water was shaking out of the glass and I was like, ‘I’ve never seen that before,’ ” the 19-year-old said. “I’ve never had that much adrenaline. But like I said, it was so fast, it kind of sucked; I wish I could have done another inning.”

That inning lasted just seven pitches, even if it went about as well as anyone could have hoped. With his parents, aunt, uncle and cousins in the stands, Sykora notched a strikeout and didn’t allow a base runner.

“Going into my real first professional game, I won’t have as much adrenaline and nerves, which will probably be a good thing,” Sykora said. “Had a good, efficient inning.”

The debut of Sykora — a flamethrower with an unorthodox delivery borrowed from idol Nolan Ryan — mirrored that of many Nationals young players who played in the inaugural set of “Spring Breakout” games, matchups of prospect-only rosters. The Nationals’ minor leaguers fell to the New York Mets prospects, 4-2. Though many on the one-game roster were already big league invites — Dylan Crews, James Wood and Brady House, for instance, led off, and right-hander Jackson Rutledge started — those who weren’t had plenty of nerves.

T.J. White, who went 2-for-3 while driving in both the Nationals’ runs with a single and double, also conceded to some jitters. White, 20, said the Breakout game felt like his first MLB game and his first professional hit. Though he arrived at camp with some apprehension — after a strong 2021 and 2022, he had just a .557 OPS last season at high-A Wilmington and made inconsistent swing decisions — he passed his biggest test yet.

“It was kind of tough at first because last year still lingers in your mind a little bit,” White said. “I had a coach tell me, ‘Hey, that doesn’t really matter. Nobody cares about it. Just go out here. Do what you do. It’s a new year.’ … I’ve been trying to get my swing back. Get more contact and get more balls in play, honestly.”

Henry, who struck out the side in the second inning, noted the depth of talent on the roster. It hasn’t always been the case.

“It’s kind of night and day from ’21 to now, my first year to now,” Henry said. “It’s been a plethora of good talent.”

The game provided an opportunity for young players to also get reps without much pressure of erring, even if nerves were high. Wood lost a ball in the sun in the first inning but made two tough catches going backward on ensuing plays. Drew Millas made an errant throw on a steal attempt but challenged two calls successfully with the ABS system. Twenty of right-hander Jarlin Susana’s 27 pitches exceeded 100 mph, and he topped out at 103 mph with two strikeouts, but he also allowed two earned runs in an inning of work.

Left-handed reliever Jose A. Ferrer has a teres major strain and will be out for three weeks before being reevaluated. He has pitched only four innings in spring training. Martinez said he hopes to carry two left-handed relievers; that likely leaves two spots from the trio of Richard Bleier, Robert Garcia and Joe La Sorsa, with Bleier and Garcia the favorites to make the roster. …

Nearly two weeks after Daylen Lile was taken off the field on a stretcher after flipping over a wall March 2 trying to rob a home run, the 21-year old outfielder chatted with media in the Nationals’ clubhouse Friday. He has been dealing with a lower back contusion but has resumed all baseball activities except playing in games, which could happen as soon as next week.

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