FLUSHING, N.Y — When Dan Uggla arrived at Space Coast Stadium in late February, he carried doubts — some his own, some belonging to others. Could he still play? Could he still see? Had age or injury or some other unidentifiable force stolen his ability to hit home runs like few infielders of the last decade have? Was he invited to spring training out of loyalty? Could he actually make the Nationals roster?
The 35-year-old did not have much chance to answer those questions, with 119 sporadic at-bats and 23 starts entering Saturday’s double-header. But after his 2014 season ended ingloriously — cut by the Braves, then the Giants — Uggla earned an unlikely spot on the Nationals’ opening day roster and never gave it up.
“I would have loved to have gotten to play more, but at the same time, that’s not the way that worked out and I’m still happy to be a part of this team and a part of this organization,” Uggla said. “Regardless of what happens, this is an awesome team with all the guys we have. It’s just been fun to be a part of that.”
In 139 plate appearances, Uggla hit .176 with a home run and 15 runs batted in. That home run was one of the biggest of the Nationals’ season — the go-ahead home run in Atlanta that capped an eight-run comeback against the Braves in April. He chipped in four pinch hits in 27 at bats, and said what he saw from himself in his limited chances was enough to tell him he can still play at this level.
“Obviously it’s hard to tell because I haven’t had very many at bats, but the way that I feel getting my work done, when I’ve had multiple at bats in a row, in my second and third, it just gets better and better as the game progresses,” Uggla said. “So I’ve been extremely happy with that, with the way I’ve been seeing the ball this year, with the way by swing has progressed, with the way that I feel.”
Uggla says his vision is back to where it was when he was hitting 30 home runs for five straight seasons, the most powerful second baseman in baseball over that span. He said he doesn’t know where this season leaves him moving forward, but “I still think I’m capable of everything I have done in the past.”
“Obviously, it’s probably not going to be a whole lot of opportunity, but my body feels great,” Uggla said. “I feel great.”
What he did or didn’t contribute on the field was less important to these Nationals than his presence in the clubhouse, where he was a perpetually chipper figure, joking with teammates, doling out hugs, even when things went wrong. Memorable scenes include him skipping into the dugout singing a Taylor Swift song, joking with Trea Turner — 14 years his junior — about an error the day before, and his relentless clubhouse practice of giving hugs to almost anyone who came close enough to receive one. Never a full-time bench player before, Uggla’s attitude did not fluctuate.
“Watching the game from the bench, watching on TV and stuff, you start to dissect the game more than you normally would. I’ve been making a conscious effort not to do that and to remember, man this game’s hard,” Uggla said. “It’s easy to be like ‘man, why didn’t you go to third on that?’ When at the same time, I’ve been in that situation a thousand times and you just gotta remember that this game’s a lot harder than what it looks like. It’s given me an opportunity to talk to other guys about the game. Maybe stuff I wasn’t so good at or didn’t know, certain way I’ve been able to talk to other guys about it and get it mentally. It’s been different, but it’s been good.”
This is Uggla’s 10th major league season, his positive approach honed over a decade in the National League East. He played in the playoffs one time, with the Braves in 2012. This was supposed to be his second chance to do that, and while he said he is grateful for being able to watch Bryce Harper’s monster season first hand — he said he’d never played with anyone who hit 40 homers before — even he could not deny the disappointment.
“You come in with goals and expectations, and especially being on a team as talented as this. For guys that have been there and done that, guys like me, having had hardly any chances to play in the postseason, you plan all year for playing in October and all of a sudden we aren’t playing in October. It’s tough to swallow.”