A baseball season is defined by its grinding rhythm, and there is no more metronomic element than those 50 minutes when a team prepares on the field. To those who are around the game daily, it is such a part of the backdrop that it almost goes unnoticed, never mind that balls regularly whiz by heads, that players and coaches occasionally get smoked.
“There’s a lot of routine,” Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. “But there’s a lot going on.”
There is an obvious infrastructure, with screens placed in front of the pitcher, in front of first base and both in front of and behind second — to protect not only a middle infielder taking relays at the bag but a coach who hits grounders to outfielders from short center. There are characters simultaneously essential and obscure because the same person throws batting practice to the same group each day and the same relief pitchers stand in the same spots in the outfield, whether to shag balls or shoot the breeze.
And lest anyone think the relaxed, easy feel means it’s a relaxed, easy time, check out the cast leaning against the cage when the Nationals hit: Eckstein, normally on a perch directly behind the hitter; Manager Davey Johnson, a hitting instructor of some renown himself; and General Manager Mike Rizzo, who is not there for appearance’s sake.
“I watch approaches, mechanics, changes in stances, hand placement, what they’re working on,” Rizzo said. “I want to be in the know.”
When batting practice — BP in the parlance of anyone involved in the game — begins, it looks simple enough. Trent Jewett, the Nationals’ third base coach, takes his position on the small wooden ramp that serves as a makeshift mound closer to the plate. He throws to the first group of hitters — four of that night’s starters, a group anchored by shortstop Ian Desmond and center fielder Denard Span.
A basket of balls sits to Jewett’s left, an L-shaped screen in front of him. And when he throws his first pitch, the dance begins. What each team in the majors goes through looks remarkably the same. What each player is looking for over the next 50 minutes varies by the individual, his circumstances, his habits, his preferences.
“If I’m feeling good, if I’m where I want to be, I use it for nothing more than to get loose,” Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “That’s it. See pitches. When I’m not, that’s when a lot of times we get to mechanical issues.”