Less than a decade ago, a 15-year-old Rafael Bautista moved from a rural village in the Dominican Republic to Santo Domingo, the country’s capital city, and joined his first organized baseball league. Three years later, the Nationals signed him for $35,000 as an 18-year-old center fielder — ancient by Dominican prospect standards. And less than six years later, Bautista, now 24, walked into the home clubhouse at Nationals Park on Saturday morning as a major leaguer for the first time.
“Feeling great,” Bautista said. “Awesome time. First time they told me you’re going up. It feels so great, man.”
Bautista was called up from Class AAA Syracuse after Adam Eaton injured his left leg in Washington’s loss to the Mets Friday night. The Nationals are waiting on the results of an MRI exam to know the extent of the injury, but he was placed on the 10-day disabled list Saturday with a “left knee strain.”
Bautista fills Eaton’s roster spot. Syracuse Manager Billy Gardner informed the speedy outfielder of his promotion after the Chiefs’ 7-4 loss in Norfolk Friday. Bautista immediately called his wife, whom he married in December, and his mother in the Dominican Republic.
“I was in shock,” Bautista said, “but it’s real.”
Bautista spent most of spring training in major league camp with the Nationals. He was given significant playing time in all three outfield spots but has played center field for most of his professional career. Spring training statistics often mean zilch, but Bautista batted .316 with a .702 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 23 Grapefruit League games.
“That helped me a lot,” Bautista said in Spanish of his spring training experience. “Because being around the people you’re going to be with here in the big leagues, to be around them and their energy and their acceptance and good camaraderie makes you feel a little more secure, a little more comfortable when the moment comes to do the job. I think that’s helped a lot in the way I was able to feel the team, the chemistry in spring training.”
Bautista prioritized making in-game adjustments to start this season and went on to hit .284 with a .672 OPS and three steals in six attempts in 19 games for Syracuse. He has started 14 games in center for the Chiefs this season, including Friday, when he went 2 for 5 in Norfolk. He’s started four games in right field and another in left.
“I know he can hit that fastball,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “He’s aggressive as a hitter. We had numerous discussions on who to hit the breaking ball, which most young hitters have trouble with and he told me he’s been working on it. And he’s an outstanding outfielder. Runs exceptionally well. Has a good throwing arm and pays attention. That’s what I like the most about him. That he pays attention. He has bright eyes and a good face, which I learned from Bo Schembechler is very, very important to see how attentive a person really is. I think he’ll be a quick learner and I know he wasn’t intimidated by his first big league camp.”