What this 19-year-old Nats prospect learned from his pitching idol

What this 19-year-old Nats prospect learned from his pitching idol

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Travis Sykora recognized the man’s voice immediately, before he even saw him on that January day in Texas. Of course he did. He’d heard Nolan Ryan on television, idolized the legendary baseball Hall of Famer and modeled his game after him.

But now Ryan was meeting with Sykora, a high school pitcher out of Round Rock, Tex., home of the Texas Rangers Class AAA affiliate. Sykora’s brother went to high school with the son of a Rangers team executive, who helped set up the get-together after the Washington Nationals selected the 19-year-old in the third round of the 2023 draft.

“One of the coolest moments I’ve ever had in my life,” Sykora said.

Most modern pitchers have “pretty mechanics,” as Sykora put it. Sykora’s pitching style is anything but. He has an unorthodox delivery with a big leg kick and jokes that it has “elbows and knees flying everywhere.” That leg kick? The 6-foot-6 Sykora stole it from Ryan, who played before he was even born.

In their meeting, Ryan told Sykora to be comfortable with throwing a lot not just during games, but on the days in between starts. Sykora didn’t pitch last summer so he could stay healthy ahead of the draft. He spent months that followed at the Nationals’ spring training facility in West Palm Beach, and only threw in a few instructional games. Sykora, who grew up in a minor league baseball town, said this year, he’s looking forward to playing affiliated ball.

“I think the biggest thing I learned from him was just how hard he worked and the amount of time he put into his game and then the mind-set he had,” Sykora said of Ryan. “He just wanted to beat everybody and that’s what he did.”

The Nationals took big swings the top of their draft class last year by signing Dylan Crews, Yoyo Morales and Sykora above their slot values. Sykora agreed to a $2.6 million signing bonus; the slot value was $1.2 million. He boasts a fastball that can reach triple digits, though he joked that Jarlin Susana, Washington’s pitching prospect who has touched 103 mph with his fastball, has him beat. Sykora compliments his fastball with a slider and a splitter.

He’s already started to make some adjustments at spring training that he believes will help him improve, including a slide step out of the stretch. He didn’t have to use that much before this season.

“In high school, obviously, you don’t have many runners on just because you’re playing not the best competition,” Sykora said. “Obviously here in pro ball, you’re going to have base runners. To control the running game, that’s a big piece of baseball. So that’s what we’ve been working on so far.”

Yoyo Morales hopes to generate more power

Infielder Yoyo Morales shined as a hitter in his professional debut a season ago, a brief 42-game stretch after Washington selected him 40th overall in the 2023 draft. The 22-year-old went on to jump all the way to Class AA Harrisburg for four games and finished with a combined .349 average, 32 RBI and 20 extra-base hits. Yet none of those were home runs, something that was a bit of a surprise for the power-hitting Morales.

“Lifting the ball with more backspin, lifting the ball when I’m hitting pull side especially,” Morales said, when asked about his point of emphasis this offseason. “I was hitting a lot of groundballs pull side. Obviously, I didn’t hit any home runs, which I’m not too worried about.”

Morales, who put on 10 pounds during the offseason, played 18 games with low Class A Fredericksburg and 18 with high Class A Wilmington, hitting groundballs 40.7 percent and 57.4 percent, respectively. A few tweaks, then, should help him build on a strong start to his career.

Defensively, Morales focused on taking better angles to the ball at third base, which is a position of strength at the top of the Nationals’ system. Brady House, the team’s 2021 first-round pick, and versatile infielder Trey Lipscomb, a second-round pick in 2022, both of whom are in big league camp, ended the year in Class AA Harrisburg. House moved to third from shortstop ahead of the 2023 season. Lipscomb can play anywhere in the infield but was drafted as a third baseman.

Morales played two games at first base for Harrisburg last season, showing that he and House could coexist on a roster. Morales hasn’t received any word on where he’ll be playing primarily this season but said he’s open to playing wherever the team needs him.

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