It was as if he forgot where he was for a moment, forgot the place and time and relative meaning. For his teammates, Saturday was another day in March’s doldrums. For Eaton, it was a milestone.
The last time he played on a major league field with his teammates was April 28. The last time he played on a major league field, he didn’t walk off it. Trainers carried him to the clubhouse after he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in a season-ending slip. This time, after hitting a solo home run, he ran across home plate while pointing to his wife and friends in the stands.
“A tremendous day for all of us,” Eaton said. “My wife was in the stands with family, and there wasn’t a dry eye. Like I said, it’s been a long 10-months-plus, and just to be able to have that hit in general is big for me and my family.”
Eaton played four innings in the field and took two at-bats. Michael A. Taylor also returned to the lineup after a two-week absence with tightness in his right side, and he played six innings and took three at-bats. Taylor’s Opening Day status was never really threatened, and as he singled up the middle in his second at-bat, stole second and took third on an errant throw, then dove for a ball in center field, Taylor looked nearly ready.
“My body feels good,” Taylor said after six innings and three at-bats Saturday. “I should probably take it a little easy so I don’t end up on the DL again, but I want to play hard and my body feels good, so I want to play 100 percent.”
Eaton said he would not risk playing in games until he, too, could play at 100 percent. He looked as eager as anyone could be after nearly 11 months out of regular duty in his first at-bat, when he swung at the first pitch Mets starter A.J. Griffin threw him, then the second, and ended up popping up to second base.
The Nationals traded three top pitching prospects for Eaton before last season, hoping they were getting five years of control of a plus defensive outfielder with the ability to lead off and steal bases.
They got about a month of him before the injury, which left the outspoken outfielder in that awkward disabled list purgatory, not exactly vanquished from his new team’s inner clubhouse circle, but not a full-fledged participant in it, either.
But Eaton will slide back into the life of a regular. His hardest transition likely won’t be to playing every day, but to where he is playing every day. Eaton has played 385 major league games in center field. He has played 127 games in right. He has played 42 games in left field.
The first ball that came his way on a windy Saturday was a slicing blooper hit by left-handed Asdrubal Cabrera, one that led Eaton toward the wall then forced him to tread carefully around it. An inning later, Jay Bruce hit a flyball to the left field wall. Eaton retreated, turned one way, then the other, then reached and watched the ball bounce off his glove.
Most experienced outfielders believe left field is the most challenging position, with the most troublesome slices and hooks and the least trustworthy reads. Eaton has about a week to settle in there. That process might take time, too.
“ I found out hardcore that [the wind] was no joke,” Eaton said. “ … So that kind of made me look foolish. But I checked off some boxes. I was able to back up a few bases, as well as that ball in the corner, using the wall to my advantage or disadvantage trying to keep the ball in front. A couple throws here and there.”
Eaton will build up over the remaining eight games of the spring training schedule, and the exhibition game in D.C. His debut Saturday qualified as step one, a big day for the Nationals’ starting left fielder — and the training staff, too. Eaton was not a patient patient.
“I hear him in [the training room],” Taylor said. “I know he’s driving the trainers crazy. They’re ready for him to get back out there.”
Eaton said he felt like he could have played nine innings Saturday. Feelings like those, from competitive people like him, are the reason players do not determine their own rehabilitation plans. It took Eaton an hour and a half to warm up for Saturday’s game. Before the injury, it took him a half-hour. Slowly but surely, he will return to normal. But differences like that remind him of the distance he still has to travel before Opening Day, though he seems determined to travel that distance.
“We’re going to fit in about 12 days what we do in six [weeks]. Which is fine because these [trainers] are magicians with the history of people that have had knee injuries or whatever it is,” Eaton said. “They know exactly how much time we need. … They’re driving the ship. Hopefully Opening Day, they’ll let me drive.”
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