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Nationals begin spring training with a James Wood moonshot

Nationals begin spring training with a James Wood moonshot

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — With a flick of the wrist in the fifth inning, James Wood sent the first pitch he saw Saturday night into orbit. It carried. It carried some more. It seemed the ball would never land, but it finally descended into the outfield grass beyond the right field fence. Fans converged, trying to grab the missile that landed at their feet.

Wood’s swing brought a collective “Ohhh!” from the fans, who eventually stood to cheer as he rounded the bases. Washington Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner stood with them and clapped. The Nationals coaches left their seats to meet Wood at the dugout steps.

The Nationals lost, 7-4, to the Houston Astros at Park of the Palm Beaches in their spring training opener, but the final score was far from the story. This game was all about prospects getting their first shot to show what they can do.

“I just looked for a pitch I could really handle,” Wood said.

After the 21-year-old slugger’s majestic home run, fellow outfielder Robert Hassell III, 22, followed with a line drive that turned into a triple; he scored in the ensuing at-bat. By the sixth inning, soon-to-be-22-year-old Dylan Crews replaced Victor Robles in center field. He made a sliding catch in the seventh to rob the Astros of a hit.

The talk of spring training this year? Somehow, it’s the pants.

Before the top prospects entered, Patrick Corbin threw 50 pitches over 1⅔ innings and allowed two runs. He had four strikeouts, all of them with his new cutter. Then the youngsters got their chance. Jackson Rutledge, 24, tossed two scoreless innings on an efficient 31 pitches. Then came the three outfielders, who all provided a glimpse of what is hopefully to come.

“This is going to be a fun spring training,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “One, we got to get our guys ready and, two, we’re going to see a lot of these young kids. … It keeps me busy, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s a good busy.”

Reliever Dylan Floro is dealing with shoulder tightness but is still throwing every day. The 33-year old right-hander, who signed in December, didn’t recover well from his latest bullpen session. Floro said he has dealt with this feeling during past spring trainings, so he isn’t alarmed but wants to be cautious. He doesn’t believe he will need that many innings to get himself ready for Opening Day.

General Manager Mike Rizzo opened camp by saying it was unlikely the Nationals would pursue any more major league contracts. But he did leave the door open for minor league deals to give the team depth in case of injuries. Since camp opened, the Nationals agreed to deals with reliever Jacob Barnes, starter Zach Davies and, most recently, reliever Derek Law.

Barnes, 33, is an eight-year veteran who has played for eight teams since 2019. Davies, 31, has made 200 career starts. Law, 33, had one of the best years of his career last season with Cincinnati, finishing with a 3.60 ERA in 55 innings before he was non-tendered in November. Law was holding out hope for a major league deal and was surprised he didn’t get one.

“Yeah, a little bit,” he said. “But you could tell the way free agency was going at the beginning. I started getting nervous once it started and all these other big names weren’t going off the board too quick.”

MacKenzie Gore will make his first start of spring training Sunday, and Jake Irvin will come next; each is slated to pitch two innings, to be followed by Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey, Amos Willingham, Joe La Sorsa and Luis Perdomo. Josiah Gray is slated to start Monday, followed by Davies on Tuesday.

Josiah Gray tinkers with his game often. At what point is it too much?

Former Nationals stalwart Ryan Zimmerman said he hopes to be more involved with the organization this season. His official title is special adviser for baseball and business operations.

So far at camp, Zimmerman has been involved in morning workouts, and he has been getting to know the team’s young core better. But Zimmerman wants to grow in his understanding of the front-office side of the game as well. He has been sitting in on coaches’ meetings as well as gatherings with Rizzo.

“That’s kind of my goal this year, to continue doing what I’m doing with the players and especially the young guys,” Zimmerman said Friday. “Also for myself, kind of learning the ins and outs of the other side and kind of become a little bit more knowledgeable so that I can better have suggestions.”

Keibert Ruiz wants to improve as a catcher. A few changes could help.

For the Nationals to build another championship team, Zimmerman said, it’s important to convince some of the squad’s young players to sign long-term contracts before they reach free agency. The Nationals signed catcher Keibert Ruiz to an eight-year, $50 million extension last spring. To do more deals such as that, Zimmerman believes the Nationals have to create an environment in which players want to stay.

It’s easier, of course, to make a commitment after Lerner announced his family’s intentions to hold on to the team. Zimmerman believes the Lerners’ past sets the precedent for what they could do in the future.

“It’s not like they never spent,” he said. “… We had good payrolls for the better part of 10 years. … Now that he came out and said we’re not selling the team, let’s do it again — and let’s do it the right way.”

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