Eleven days have passed since pitchers officially reported to spring training. The first Grapefruit League game will not happen until Friday. Tedium and malaise at this point of the spring are tougher opponents than the Cardinals and Braves.
In order to break the monotony, Nationals pitchers spent the second half of practice today nowhere near a mound. They participated in a hitting competition with convoluted rules, buckets playing the role of fielders and trash talk. The game, a creation from the mind of rehab coordinator Mark Grater, was a way for pitchers to practice bunting and hitting behind runners without them even realizing it.
Nationals coaches chose four captains – Doug Fister, Chris Young, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. They picked teams. Fister’s team played Young’s team at Space Coast Stadium, and Strasburg’s team played Zimmermann’s team on a neighboring backfield.
“There are things that we have focus on every day that are very important,” Fister said. “Hitting and bunting and moving runners is one of them. For Matt [Williams] to schedule things like that, we’re able to have fun with it, it’s going to stick in our brain a little bit.”
Inside the stadium, Grater outlined the rules. When an inning started off, hitters needed to reach base with a hit. A line drive off the L screen was a single; a one-hop off the L screen was an out. Four “fielders” – buckets – were positioned at each infield position. If a ball hit them, it was an error. For every hit, Grater made a determination if it was a hit or an error. Home runs counted, but the hitter had to jog to the outfield and retrieve the ball himself.
Once a “runner” got on base, hitters had to follow protocol. Depending on outs and where the “runners” were positioned, they had to either drop a bunt down to one side or the other or push the runner ahead with a grounder to the right side. Failure to comply resulted in an automatic out. A successful bunt would not be counted as an out, but teams were not allowed to bunt twice consecutively.
Captains could make decisions on how to play their imaginary defenders and when to send their imaginary runners. If a coach sent a runner, Grater would determine whether he was out or safe with a throw – if he hit a sign on the backstop from the mound (or closer, if he deemed the hit/sac fly to be shallow), then the “runner” was out.
The loser had to pick up all the balls. Grater’s rule as the umpire was final, and only captains could argue with him.
Before he threw he first pitch, Grater again repeated that stipulation – any arguing from anyone other than Fister or Young would result in that player taking a lap. Grater sidearmed a pitch home, and Daniel Rosenbaum, of Team Young, grounded it through the left side.
“That’s an out,” Grater declared.
“What!?” protested Gio Gonzalez, also on Team Young.
“That’s a lap, Gio!” Grater said.
Later on, Fister’s team scored a run on a sacrifice fly after one of Grater’s throws failed to hit the sign. “You know what? That sucked,” Gonzalez yelled at Grater. He started running his lap before he ended his protest. Overall, Gonzalez took four laps.
Team Fister took an early lead. Matt Purke, one of Fister’s choices, slapped a single to right. “That’s a lot of instructional league,” Grater said. Team Young fought back.
Taylor Jordan gave Team Fister a 6-5 lead late in the game with a home run over the left field fence. “You’re pitching me inside,” Jordan said to Grater. “What do you expect?” When Jordan picked up a ball halfway to the warning track and tried to jog back, Steve McCatty sent him back to actually retrieve the home run ball.
Team Young won it in their last at-bat. They loaded the bases for Christian Garcia, a high school catcher who hit .400. He launched a massive home run over the left-center field fence, slowly walked out of the box and flipped his bat. “In the face, Miami style!” Gonzalez screamed as he jogged around the bases for Garcia.
Fister’s team picked up the balls. On the other field, Zimmermann’s team won when non-roster invitee Daniel Stange walloped an opposite-field home run.
“It’s a matter of getting the drill,” Fister said. “At the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to – getting bunts down, moving runners, doing things the right way. That’s what we’re out here for. We’ll all be celebrating as long as we do things right. That’s the main key.”
“The only thing we didn’t account for is, they made a new rule,” Williams said. “This was supposed to be, we have two winners. Now, they have a championship game they want to do.”