Batting practice is meant for just that: practice. And Wilson Ramos is a power hitter. So during Thursday’s day of light workouts at Space Coast Stadium, the final one before spring training games begin, Ramos stepped into the batting cage against Manager Matt Williams and let loose. But in the opening round, Ramos whiffed at a Williams pitch and the dozen or so fans watching from the stands laughed.
“Ramos’s got nothing,” one of them yelled.
The next time Ramos, 26, stepped into the cage, he unleashed a furious power display. The rest of his hitting group– Anthony Rendon, Ian Desmond and Jhonatan Solano – were drilling the ball hard, too. And, in the following group, Jayson Werth and especially Bryce Harper, also did the same. But Ramos was sending the balls further and perhaps with more force.
Ramos fittingly hit the “Health First” sign on the right of the scoreboard. A Nationals facility official estimated the distance at about 450 feet. Then, Ramos hit the ridge of trees just beyond the scoreboard in left-center. Then, Ramos hit, appropriately, the “United Launch Alliance” sign on the left of the scoreboard.
“Show-off!” Williams shouted back at Ramos.
Asked later about his competition against Ramos, Williams smiled. “I lost,” he said.
“I was concentrate on hit the ball hard,” Ramos said. “Same every day. Every day I’m working on something during BP, trying to make good contact and see how the ball go. Today, that was a little bit funny. Matt throw a pretty good BP. I missed one ball. He was laughing. But part of the practice.”
The Nationals’ season could rest, in part, on the health and performance of Ramos. When he wasn’t injured and played last season, Ramos was an offensive force. He drove in 59 runs and hit 16 home runs in only 78 games, a home run rate that would have ranked in the top 10 in baseball if he had qualified. He knows the pitching staff and is a strong game caller. The Nationals went 48-29 in games that Ramos started.
“He’s an important piece to our team,” Williams said. “You want to be strong up the middle and it starts with him. So we need to make sure we take good care of him in spring training and get him enough at-bats and make sure that his legs are good and try to do that. He’s an integral part of our team.”
Williams said he is impressed with Ramos’s “big power.” And Ramos’s ability to hit the ball the other way, too. Ramos drives in runs because, Williams said, the catcher hits the ball well up the middle.
One of the biggest question marks this season will be Ramos’s health. For the past two years, Ramos has been unlucky and played only 103 games. In 2012, it was the knee injury and subsequent surgeries. In 2013, it was the hamstring injuries. By the end of last season, Ramos proved he was healthy and even started 23 straight games behind the plate at one point.
Williams said he has told Ramos that wants him to catch as many games as possible this season, but understood that every day catchers can’t play every day. Williams also said he wasn’t comfortable letting Ramos catch 23 straight games like he did last season. Ideally, Williams wants to rest Ramos the day game after a night game, or give him off before an off day to make it two days of rest.
“We have to take care of him in that regard and make sure that we’re resting him as much as we can,” Williams said. “Game-wise, we don’t know. But, when you look at the stats and very few guys caught 100, let alone 120.”
Actually, seven catchers in baseball played in at least 120 games last season, and only four of them – Matt Wieters (134 games), Yadier Molina (128), Salvador Perez (126) and Jonathan Lucroy (122) – started at least 120 games. The most Ramos has caught in a season is 108 in 2011. The Nationals are not setting high expectations of playing time for Ramos. And trading for Jose Lobaton was evidence that the Nationals wanted to shore up their major league depth behind Ramos in case of more injuries.
Williams has encouraged Ramos to visit the training room on off days – during the spring and the season – and continue both his strengthening and stretching programs. Ramos said that when he played winter ball in Venezuela, he was running at full speed around the bases when he served as a designated hitter and felt strong. Ramos is optimistic about the 2014 season and not worried about his previously injured body parts.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “That’s a good moment for me. Two years in a row, getting hurt, it’s pretty hard. But right now, it feels great. I’m excited to be healthy. Right now, I’m concentrate on going out and doing my job. I’m not concentrate on what I have to do for my knee or my hammy. I forget about that. I turn the page, and right now just go out there and see what happens. Do my job and having fun.”