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How one bullpen session shows Kurt Suzuki’s underlying value to Nationals

Kurt Suzuki is one of two veterans expected to split time at catcher for the Nationals. (Jeff Roberson/Associated Press)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Austen Williams spiked a curveball into the dirt, shook his head three times and muttered to himself as he dragged his feet back onto the mound.

The voice inside Williams’s head was screaming. Then the voice from behind the plate chimed in.

“No, that was good, man!” catcher Kurt Suzuki yelled from 60 feet away. “I actually really liked that.”

This continued throughout Williams’s 28-pitch bullpen session last Friday, the first of the 26-year-old pitcher’s first major league spring training. Williams, bent on proving himself, fired fastballs and curveballs and change-ups into Suzuki’s mitt. Suzuki, a 35-year-old, 12-year-veteran, gave tips and feedback and encouragement after almost every pitch.

Suzuki signed with the Nationals for two years and $10 million in November and joins veteran Yan Gomes in the team’s two-part answer to its offensive struggles at catcher in 2018. He hit 12 home runs and had a .776 on-base-plus-slugging percentage with the Atlanta Braves last season and, though in the back half of his career, has used advanced statistics to keep improving offensively. He is proven and proving that he is not quite ready to slow down.

Yet his greatest value to the Nationals could go beyond that, even with him and Gomes expected to be a productive pair offensively while splitting time. Suzuki’s new teammates and coaches promise this is not just another sports cliche. Suzuki loves mentoring younger players, sharing his wisdom, shouting into quiet moments to remind teammates who may forget that baseball can be fun. It has showed in the eight days he has been with the Nationals after playing in Washington for parts of 2012 and 2013.

“For him, a player who has accomplished so much, to be so focused working with me, a player still trying to crack in …” Williams said before trailing off, looking for the right words. “That was really special. I mean really special. It shows exactly what kind of guy he is.”

Williams first saw he was paired with Suzuki the day before and wasn’t sure what to expect. The Nationals are deliberate about mostly pairing their big league arms with their top catchers — Gomes with Max Scherzer, Suzuki with Stephen Strasburg — but a selection for Williams was much more random. Williams, who debuted for the Nationals in September, had never met Suzuki and introduced himself after a pitchers and catchers meeting.

But Suzuki already knew a lot about him.

“Are you sure you’re thinking of the right Austen?” Williams remembers asking Suzuki when they first started talking. “I think you may have the wrong Austen.”

He didn’t. Suzuki complimented Williams’s breaking ball and mid-90s heat. He joked about how Williams undoes the top button of his jersey and doesn’t wear an undershirt. And he knew Williams was trying to incorporate his change-up more after working on it all winter. Williams wondered whether Suzuki dug through the small amount of film on him or remembered that much from his one appearance against the Braves last year. Either way, he was flattered and impressed.

“Okay, Austen, what do you got for me today?” Suzuki said loudly as he squatted behind the plate for Williams’s first pitch. “Show me something now, kid.”

It was a fastball that clipped the corner, and Suzuki nodded with approval before firing the ball back. He let Williams know when a pitch worked. He did the same when one didn’t. While most catchers wait until after a bullpen session to discuss spots and sequences, Suzuki will offer real-time thoughts so a pitcher can make adjustments on the fly. It’s a good time of year to do that. Changes get harder to make as the season draws closer. They are even harder to implement once it begins.

Except sometimes Suzuki’s constant chatter can get him in trouble. He is supposed to count the number of pitches and is prone to lose track. He forgot how many Strasburg had thrown earlier that day, and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist took note.

“Hey, Kurt, how many pitches is Austen at?” Lilliquist asked sarcastically from across the bullpen area.

“I don’t know, Lilly!” Suzuki shouted back. “But I think I’m going to hire someone to stand behind me with a clicker. I can’t count and catch at the same time.”

Everyone laughed. Suzuki knew Williams was at 16 pitches and, for the next 12, let him settle into a groove before they met between the plate and mound. Williams relied on a sinker earlier in his career, and that made him constantly focus on keeping the ball down. But he has since evolved into a hard-throwing reliever who instead uses a four-seam fastball. Coaches want him to elevate that pitch more, and Suzuki walked him through the best ways to do that. Then they talked about how Williams’s curve, his go-to pitch, could be sequenced off high fastballs. Then they discussed Williams’s change-up, a new tool for him, and how throwing it every so often puts another variable in hitters’ heads.

It all gave Williams a ton to chew on as he sat in the clubhouse that afternoon, dissecting his first bullpen session and looking ahead to the next. He had thanked Suzuki more than once, but the catcher waved him off. Suzuki insisted he was only doing his job.

“I love that stuff, man,” Suzuki said. “I’ve played a lot of baseball and feel like I have some stuff I can tell guys on this team and in this organization. And I like to try to have fun with it, too. Things can get monotonous here. They are just throwing and throwing, so I try to break it up a little bit. It’s a long season. We’re going to need some of that.”

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