A few hours before Wilmer Difo played right field for the first time in his life, word of the debut trickled through the Nationals clubhouse.
“Wilmer Difo is playing right field?” one player asked.
“Yeah, I was just as surprised as you,” someone responded.
Difo was surprised, too. The Nationals activated Trea Turner from the disabled list Tuesday, pushing Difo out of a starting job and leaving Manager Dusty Baker to find at-bats for a player batting .339 in 46 games over the past two months. So on Tuesday, Baker called Difo into his office to express how great he thought he played during the stretch and to inform him he was playing right field against the Marlins. He advised him balls hit that way tend to slice toward the foul line and assured the 26-year-old Dominican he will get him in the lineup as often as possible.
“If Anthony [Rendon] needs a blow then Difo will play third,” Baker said before the Nationals’ 8-3 win. “And Trea won’t need a blow for a while, but he’ll need one eventually … I told him [Difo] could play left, center, right, and second, short, third. He’s not quite tall enough to have at first base, but that’s quite a few positions to have an opportunity to stay sharp and continue to contribute.”
Baker explained that he started Difo in right field Tuesday because Jayson Werth, who returned from the disabled list Monday, was sore from getting hit by a pitch during his rehab assignment in the minors, though the wet conditions at Nationals Park were probably also a significant factor for a 38-year-old man who broke his foot less than three months ago. But the manager also admitted he’s taking stock of his personnel ahead of the postseason, a luxury made possible by a 13-game division lead. With Stephen Drew possibly done for the season, Difo’s spot on the playoff roster, barring injury, is all but locked.
“I’m doing that every day,” Baker said. “I’m trying options. I’m trying to win games at the same time to see what we have.”
Difo’s first experience in right field wasn’t a disaster, but it also didn’t earn any style points. He was tested immediately when Dee Gordon led the game off with a flyball in that rain that Difo handled like someone playing right field for the first time. Later in the game, he briefly lost a flyball, but he recovered in time to make a basket catch. At the plate, he went 1 for 3, with a double and a run scored.
“He looked pretty good other than that Willie Mays catch, [which] kind of scared us,” Baker said. “First time he’s been out there. We’re going to work him out everywhere. Like I told him, he’s going to be kind of like my sixth man in basketball, which is a very valuable person.”
Difo reported for spring training having never played a professional game in the outfield — the Nationals requested he play center field in winter ball but he didn’t — and he accrued his first 13 innings there in spring training. He didn’t play in the outfield again until tallying 12 innings in center field for Class AAA Syracuse in June. He was then promoted back to the majors to start in center on June 23. He lasted six innings, the first of which included a mistake that turned into a double.
A month later, he played seven innings in left field, but he was already getting the bulk of the starts at shortstop following Turner’s injury. He became Washington’s everyday shortstop by the end of the month after Drew was placed on the disabled list, and excelled.
Difo exceeded all expectations over two months — a sample size too big to dismiss. In 187 plate appearances across 48 games entering Tuesday, Difo was batting .339 with an .849 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, three home runs, five doubles, three triples and seven steals in seven attempts. Combined with solid defense — his 5.9 defensive runs saved according to FanGraphs was ranked 12th among shortstops in baseball entering Tuesday — he performed well above replacement level.
“I feel good,” Difo said. “Thank God things are going well up until now and I feel super good at the plate and on defense, too. And I think it’s good that he’s giving me a chance. It doesn’t matter where. But I know he wants to see me do well. “
It was a career-altering stretch, one in which Difo, who’s always had the eye-popping tools but didn’t post gaudy numbers in the minors, proved he is a capable major leaguer. It’s why Max Scherzer, unprompted, praised Difo Monday night after news of Turner’s impending return was revealed. The Nationals welcomed Turner back, Scherzer said, but Difo’s efforts to help keep the Nationals rolling didn’t go unnoticed.
“They gave me the chance and that’s what you want,” Difo said. “To get the chance and capitalize on it as much as possible and help the team win. That’s what’s important.”
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