Last season, Nationals catchers threw out 17 percent of runners who attempted to steal, second-worst in the major leagues. Manager Davey Johnson made holding runners a point of emphasis for the Nationals’ pitching staff during spring training. The priority received its first test in the third inning Wednesday, after Juan Pierre rolled the Marlins’ first hit of the night just past Adam LaRoche’s dive at first base.
The moment yearned for a steal attempt – Pierre swiped 37 bases last year, and with two outs and no one else on base, he was 90 feet from scoring position. Everyone in the park could predict Pierre, still one of the fastest players in the league, would try for second. Gonzalez threw to first base twice to hold Pierre. After a first-pitch strike to Donovan Solano, Suzuki called for an 0-1 curveball. Pierre bolted.
Suzuki waited for the 75-mph curve to reach his mitt. He stayed back as the pitch curled in, something he has worked on with bench coach and catching instructor Randy Knorr.
“Not going and getting the ball,” Suzuki said. “Taking your time, letting the ball come and then being quick with your feet. I tend to see the runner and say, ‘Oh, he’s fast, I got to go get it.’ I just take my time and let it hit. And then, ‘Boom.’ ”
The technique allowed Suzuki to make what may have been one of the finest throws of his career. His bullet throw reached second base, according to one scout’s stopwatch, in 1.9 seconds. It was the fastest “pop time” the scout had recorded from Suzuki, even back to his days in Oakland.
The accurate throw guided Danny Espinosa’s glove to Pierre’s shins – “perfect strike,” Johnson said. Pierre slid into the tag, and Gonzalez pointed at Suzuki as he walked off the field.
“I think that’s the best one I’ve seen Zuk put right on the money,” Gonzalez said. “It’s fun to watch. When he makes a play like that, it takes a lot off you.”
Time will tell how well the Nationals improve on their dismal performance preventing stolen bases last season. Last year, the Nationals’ failing owed in part to losing Wilson Ramos for the year. In 2011, Ramos threw out 32 percent of would-be base stealers, not elite but far better than the Nationals fared without him in 2012.
At the rate the Nationals’ pitching staff is allowing base runners, it may become moot, anyhow. Right now, though, they’re 1 for 1.
“With Juan, he’s such a good base stealer you try to put the ball in the bag,” Suzuki said. “And if you get him, you get him. I didn’t try to do too much.”
One other note on Suzuki: He reached base in one at-bat after the home plate umpire ruled a fastball from Kevin Slowey deflected off his chest. Suzuki admitted afterward that the ball actually hit his bat, not his body. So, there were no ill effects from that play.