Nearly four hours before Sunday evening’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Kurt Suzuki and batting practice pitcher Ali Modami walked towards the Nationals Park outfield. On yet another day in which he wasn’t going to play, Suzuki ran sprints in the outfield. Eight games into August, he has played only once in the month.
Since Wilson Ramos returned from an extended stint on the disabled list on July 4, Suzuki has started only eight of 32 games, and fewer recently. Ramos is scheduled to start his sixth straight game on Sunday. It makes sense: Ramos is a better hitter, posting a .308/.330/.516 slash line with five homers and 20 RBI since rejoining the Nationals from his second hamstring injury. And, during Ramos’s absence, Suzuki carried a heavy load, starting 36 of 44 games.
Before the season, Manager Davey Johnson described a plan that involved platooning Suzuki and Ramos, an effort to ease Ramos back into action after last year’s major knee surgery. The hope was to slowly transfer a heavier load to Ramos, whom the Nationals view as their cornerstone catcher for many years, and the time now has come. Ramos, 26, has performed well with everyday playing time, and his legs and knee have handled the load well, too. Suzuki, 29, knows what this all means for him.
“I’ve been in this spot before where it’s a young kid,” Suzuki said. “People don’t really need to communicate with me much. I get the point. I understand what position I’m in. I understand that it’s a good, young catcher who hasn’t played much at all this year and needs to get his reps in and missed pretty much all of last year, too, so he needs to play. I understand that. It’s nothing out of the normal of business.”
Suzuki also loses a substantial amount of money with the decreased playing time. He is making $6.45 million this season, with the Oakland Athletics picking up a significant amount. Suzuki has a $8.5 million club option for 2014, which the Nationals seem unlikely to pick up because of their comfort with Jhonatan Solano at Class AAA Syracuse as a future backup catcher. If Suzuki made 113 starts this season, the ’14 option would have vested at $9.25 million. He has started only 69 games. If his option is picked up, the Nationals could buyout Suzuki’s contract for $650,000.
For now, Suzuki is focused on staying sharp for when he plays and in the event of any injury. Some days he does heavy training and others he simply gets his heart rate up. He sprints on days off. In the workout room, he uses the rowing machine and other circuit training. But it’s hard to replicate catching without playing.
“I’ll catch a bullpen every once in a while,” Suzuki said. “But those guys aren’t really going game speed so it’s tough to simulate. So I’ll go out there once a homestand or when we’re on the road and the facilities aren’t as nice and I can’t really get a lot of work in. During the game, I’ll catch off the machine some so I can work on my receiving and do some footwork stuff. That’s I’ve been doing the last week or so at home during the game and stuff.”
To stay active at the plate, Suzuki takes extra early batting practice and is in the indoor batting cages as often as possible. Suzuki is hitting .218 with a .587 OPS on the season, and during Ramos’s second stint on the disabled list, Suzuki wore down with the heavy load. He hit .209 (27 for 129) with one homer in that span. He is hitting .179 (5 for 28) since Ramos returned.
“It’s not easy,” Suzuki said. “But you can’t really control that. What I can control is getting myself better every day and that’s kinda the way I’m looking at it now. I’m getting myself better every day to work on things that I need to work on. Hopefully it’ll help me out to finish off this year and go into next year.”