WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — One of the several projects Kevin Long is tackling in his first spring as Nationals hitting coach is unearthing pre-2017 Matt Wieters. Last season, Wieters was one of the least productive everyday players across baseball. Long believes a few changes can help him bounce back to being one of the better offensive catchers in the majors.
“I’ll just say he’s made a lot of adjustments and he feels pretty sexy about what he’s doing,” Long said. “We’ll see how it plays it out.”
The early returns are promising. Wieters, who is 15 pounds lighter than last season, went 2 for 2 with a two-run home run and two runs scored in his spring debut against the Braves on Sunday in Washington’s 9-3 win at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.
“I’m able to feel a lot of things we’re working on and able to take it into the game,” Wieters said. “So it’s a good feeling to be able to carry over what you’ve put some time and effort into live at-bats.”
Wieters explained the most significant adjustment he’s made at the plate is staying grounded. The objective is to avoid crossing himself over like when a pitcher throws across a body, a problem that has plagued him throughout his career. The thinking is if he can accomplish that, his upper body will free up and he’ll be quicker to the ball.
A switch hitter, Wieters said he has focused on his left-handed swing working with Long. Once he’s comfortable with it, he’ll shift his attention over to his right-handed approach. On Sunday, he collected the single batting left-handed and the home run from the opposite side.
“It’s good for him to have the results, but his swing looked good all camp so far,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “He’s made some good adjustments and the big thing is he feels great. His body feels great so that’s a plus. I just want him to stay that way. So he might not play as much this spring just to keep him healthy, but we’ll see how he feels.”
• Shawn Kelley, another National looking to bounce back from the worst season of his big league career, also had a strong spring debut Sunday. The veteran right-hander needed seven pitches to retire the side in the second inning. His fastball sat at 91 mph and he threw three sliders, one of which produced a strikeout.
“He looked better than okay,” Martinez said. “He came out of the came, we made a joke, ‘Hey, don’t peak too soon.’ But it’s good to see him back out there. He threw the ball really well. He really did.”
Kelley said he was started a little earlier in spring than usual so the Nationals could get him in eight or nine exhibition games cautiously. One of small group of pitchers to have success in the majors after two Tommy John surgeries, the 33-year-old Kelley dealt with various injuries in 2017 as he posted the highest home run rate in baseball. At the end of the season, his sore elbow was injected with platelet-rich plasma to speed recovery. The maintenance and time off, he said, allowed for his arm to recover.
“It’s just the extension,” said Kelley, who is owed $5.5 million this season. “The fastball’s got a little bit extra life, which you notice because you get the late swings instead of the loud contact. And the slider has that depth. Instead of floating it up there and hoping they hit it at somebody, you are getting the swings and misses. That’s what I was looking for today, and today was more than I could ask for.”
• Trea Turner, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Michael A. Taylor also made their Grapefruit League debuts on Sunday. Ryan Zimmerman was originally scheduled to join them — and bat lead off to compile at-bats as quickly as possible — but he was scratched from the lineup Sunday morning with what Martinez called “stiffness.”
Meanwhile, Turner went 1 for 1 with two walks; Harper went 0 for 3 and left five runners on base; Rendon went 0 for 1; and Taylor went 1 for 2.