VIERA, Fla. — Thursday afternoon, on an otherwise barren Space Coast Stadium field, Washington Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr stood on the edge of the infield grass between third base and shortstop, with a bag of balls and a fungo bat. He smacked balls on one or two hops at catcher Kurt Suzuki, who was stationed at home plate. Knorr rotated to the center of the infield and then to the right side, until the bag emptied.
No matter where the “throw” came from, Suzuki planted his left foot on the first base side of home plate, the dish separating him from an imaginary charging runner. Suzuki caught the throws and slid on his kneepads across the plate, making a sweeping motion with his mitt.
A quick play at the plate is one of the hardest to simulate, and Suzuki has practiced it this way since 2008. “That’s the only reason why I do it, is to practice getting in a good position,” Suzuki said. “So I don’t get smashed at home plate.”
The Nationals will avoid attrition behind the plate any way they can. Last season, injuries forced them to cycle through five catchers and necessitated the midseason trade for Suzuki. Only one — rookie Sandy Leon, in his first game — suffered an injury while blocking the plate. But one of baseball’s riskiest plays presents a new worry for this season, as Wilson Ramos returns after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee last year.
Ramos hurt his knee while innocently chasing a passed ball, a mundane action that cost him his season. He has healed so completely that Manager Davey Johnson has reconsidered his stance to make Suzuki the opening day catcher and given Ramos the chance to compete. Thursday night, Ramos caught a complete game for the first time and nailed Atlanta Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons trying to steal third base.
“If I say this, I don’t know if anybody can believe it,” Ramos said afterward. “But I feel better than before I got hurt.”
Spring training has yet to present Ramos and his surgically repaired knee with a play at the plate that would force him to make a split-second decision. He insisted nothing would change. He would not seek contact, but if the situation called for it, he would stand in front of the plate and absorb a collision.
“I’m not thinking about that right now,” Ramos said. “If I have an opportunity to block the plate, that’s reaction. When I play, I forget everything. I forget the knee. I just play hard. If get an opportunity to block home plate, I will block home plate. But if I get an opportunity to just tag the runner, I would do it. I don’t want to get in a collision and get out of the game.”
Around baseball, the collision between a runner trying to score and a prone catcher has come under scrutiny. San Francisco Giants Manager Bruce Bochy and St. Louis Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny, both former catchers, have called for the league to ban the play, to force runners to slide rather than lower their shoulder. Some teams have instructed catchers to avoid contact — preventing one run, they reason, is not worth losing a catcher for an extended period of time.
The Nationals, even with Ramos returning to full strength, have not joined the cautionary thinking. Johnson bemoaned the softening of the sport, recalling catchers who would “stick the shin guard into the guy and let him break something.” He sees no need for outlawing collisions at the plate.
“I mean, when are you going to stop it?” Johnson said. “Sometimes things happen. We don’t need any more rules.”
Suzuki once suffered a minor injury trying to block the plate, when fellow catcher Miguel Olivo slid late and jumped on to his ankle. He has absorbed other hits, and he does not think a new rule needs to be made.
“I don’t really have a preference,” Suzuki said. “It would be nice to not get run over. But at the same time, if it’s part of the game, I understand it.”
The Nationals’ catching contingent believes they can take hits and avoid injury with proper technique. They teach catchers to not straddle home plate before they have received the ball. Suzuki said he leaves the plate open to the runner as he waits for a throw, and only blocks the plate if he catches the ball before the runner arrives.
“Early in the game, you might give up one,” Knorr said. “Late in the game, you got to take the plate away. That might be the difference in winning and losing the game. I never want to tell them to shy away from contact and making the play. But if it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, come out and get the ball, keep the runners where they’re at.”
Suzuki tries to either avoid or absorb blows. He focuses on being athletic, catching the ball a few feet in front of the plate and then turning around to make the tag. The spinning motion allows him to avoid contact and lessens the chance the runner will knock the ball out of his glove, even if eliminating the macho aspect of blocking the plate.
“You get your ego out of the way and make a play,” Suzuki said.
It can still carry risks. Suzuki caught for Oakland in 2011 when, across town, Giants catcher Buster Posey suffered a gruesome, season-ending ankle injury on a collision at home plate. Suzuki saw the replay once, and made sure never to watch it again. “It was nasty,” Suzuki said. “I don’t even like looking at it, or keeping it in the back of your mind.”
Instead, he tries to prepare himself. It is hard to mimic a game situation, the intensity of a throw sailing home at the same moment a runner barrels home.
“There’s a little anxiety that goes into that, too,” Suzuki said. “But the more you work on it, the less anxiety you get.”