The play happened so fast Matt Skole cannot remember all of the details. He stretched at first base to catch a throw up the line. As he extended his arm, the runner sprinted into his glove. His arm locked, and the ligaments inside his elbow could not withstand the pressure. It whizzed past: ball, runner, pain. When Skole got back to the clubhouse, trainers placed ice on his elbow, but swelling persisted. “I knew something wasn’t right,” Skole said.
The summer unfolded so slowly Skole would like to forget it. He had impressed Washington Nationals teammates, coaches and officials during his first big league spring training. In his second game at Class AA Harrisburg, Skole suffered an elbow ligament tear that ended his season.
“It’s brutal,” Skole said. “It makes you not take it for granted, that’s for sure. It’s very humbling, to sit back the whole year and watch your teammates, all the guys playing and getting after it and doing what they love.”
After he missed the entire regular season, Skole is back on the field, gaining experience he lost during 2013 in the Arizona Fall League. Skole is hitting just .184, but he is tied for fifth in the league with three homers and tied for second with 13 walks in just 51 plate appearances.
Skole, 24, earned the Nationals’ minor league player of the year award in 2012, and he remains one of the Nationals’ top prospects. Baseball America ranked him fourth in their annual top 10, which came out in this month’s issue. After an arduous year rehabbing his elbow, Skole said his swing is back to “100 percent.”
“His body is in a terrific place,” director of player development Doug Harris said. “I’m really proud of him. He took advantage of the time he had on his hands. Obviously when you have an injury like he went through the first reaction is, ‘I lost a year.’ The challenge we put in front of him was, ‘You lost a season of at-bats but you also have an opportunity to do some things physically that you otherwise wouldn’t be capable of doing.’ ”
It took work and patience, the drudgery of recovering in Viera, Fla. while teammates played in the Eastern League. For the first two months, doctors prohibited from his using his left arm in any way. He lived in the Florida heat, sweating through workouts that resembled baseball not at all. He staved off boredom by reading – fellow prospect Steven Souza lent him Christian books – and by learning to cook.
“I never worried about eating” before, Skole said. “I finally learned how to eat healthy and save some money.”
About four months after the injury took place, Skole picked up a bat again for the first time. He took five “dry” swings, hacking at the air. The trainer told him that was all he could do. “It was like, ‘Ah man, I’m just getting loose. I got to stop already?’ ” Skole said.
He kept slowly progressing, and when the instructional league began in late September, the Nationals permitted Skole to play again. The strength in his elbow and his performance convinced the Nationals to send him for a second stint in the Arizona Fall League.
“I’ll tell you what man, I’ve never been more fired up to play an instructional league game,” Skole said. “When I put that uniform on here, that Nats uniform, I can’t tell you, man. I had butterflies. I was ready to go.”
From his first game in the fall league, Skole felt as though he had not missed anything. After running hard in his first few games, he felt soreness in his hamstring, where doctors had removed a tendon graft they used to replace his torn elbow ligament. Scar tissue was breaking up, a normal side effect.
At the plate, Skole drew nine walks in his first six games. Even though few hits have fallen for him, he hasn’t lost his discipline. “That’s probably the biggest thing I’m most pleased about,” Skole said. “I didn’t lose that selectiveness in the eye. I felt like I still knew the strike zone. That’s a big part of my game.”
Skole believes his experience this season will make him a better player. It helped him appreciate the game more. It allowed him to watch more baseball and think about the sport in a different context. It also gave him a new notion of the right play when a ball sails up the line.
“Maybe next time,” he said, “I let that thing go.”
>>> As for the rest of the Nationals’ contingent at the Arizona Fall League, left-handed starters Sammy Solis and Matt Purke have been particularly impressive.
Solis underwent Tommy John in the spring of 2012 and returned this season to post a 3.43 ERA in 57 2/3 innings at Class A Potomac. Internally, the Nationals view Solis, a second-round pick in 2010, as a significant part of their future. Solis has struck out 20 and walked six en route to a 2.29 ERA over 19 2/3 innings in the Fall League.
Purke, a fourth-rounder in 2011 who dropped because of signing demands, finally seems to be healthy after he experienced constant left shoulder problems ever since signing a big-league deal out of the draft. Purke made 18 starts this year and posted a 3.80 ERA between Low-A Hagerstown and High-A Potomac. In the Fall League, Purke has struck out 14 and walked seven in 19 innings.
“Dominant. Dominant,” Skole said. “I hadn’t seen them pitch all year. From what they’ve done out here, if they’re not the two best starters, they’ve pitched the best. Sammy, I feel like he can throw any pitch he wants. Those guys have been busting their ass.”
Here’s a quick rundown of how other Nationals prospects, who are playing for the Mesa Solar Sox, have fared in Arizona:
OF Brian Goodwin: 60 ABs, .317/.349/.467, 2 HR, 2 BB, 16 K, 3 SB, 1 CS
C Adrian Nieto: 31 ABs, .290/.378/.387, 0 HR, 5 BB, 8 K, 0 SB, 1 CS
OF Steven Souza: 29 ABs, .345/.441/.379, 0 HR, 5 BB, 7 K, 9 SB, 1 CS
RP Robert Benincasa: 8 IP, 4.50 ERA, 10 H, 3 BB, 7 K
RP Richie Mirowski: 9 IP, 2.00 ERA, 7 H, 2 BB, 6 K