The outfielder missed all but 23 games of his first year with the Nationals as his knee recovered. Then, in 2018, nagging ankle pain led to surgery that kept him out from early April to early June. He has played in 116 games across two seasons with Washington and, although he has hit .300 with a .394 on-base percentage, injuries have defined his time with the Nationals. But Eaton doesn’t think he’s fragile or in decline — and he’s not ready to alter his scrappy style to stay on the field.
He wants that last part written in bold. His goal is to play 155 games in right field this season, his average with the Chicago White Sox in 2015 and 2016, and he plans to do that his way. Nationals Manager Dave Martinez announced Saturday that Eaton will again be his regular leadoff hitter, after considering shortstop Trea Turner for that spot during the spring.
“Why would I go out there and all of a sudden play differently? If you can’t play the game the correct way, don’t play the game at all,” Eaton said. “People are paying me a lot of money, people are buying tickets to see me play, and if I’m thinking about myself in that situation, that’s kind of bulls---.”
The Eaton that excelled in Chicago — and the Eaton the Nationals traded three top pitching prospects to get — sprints out groundballs, barrels into second to break up double plays and goes full-tilt in the outfield. He said he’s no different at 30 years old, even with the scars, and traveled to Florida on Jan. 2 to get an early start this spring. It was normal compared to last year’s, when he was still hobbling back into form, and he realizes how much time he once spent getting his body right. That didn’t mean he lessened his focus on hitting, fielding and breaking down film last spring. The days were just much longer with rehab mixed in.
Now he takes better care of himself and believes that perspective could extend his career. He’s in the final season of a five-year contract, signed when he was still with the White Sox, and the Nationals have a $9.5 million option for 2020. His value is as a top-of-the-order batter who works long at-bats, hits and walks his way on base and, in everything, pushes himself and teammates with relentless effort. And, again, Eaton sees no reason to compromise that.
“I would never ask another professional athlete that: Are you scared about getting hurt again?” Eaton said. “For me, that kind of . . . what’s the word I’m looking for? . . . insults my mental toughness. That’s why I would never ask anybody that: Are you afraid about getting hurt or tweaking anything? You don’t play scared.”
Eaton holds up his right hand to show a thin scar on the back of it. Then he waves the hand as if that’s nothing. He slid headfirst back into second this spring and was stepped on by a shortstop. The metal cleat left a mark, but that won’t stop him from sliding headfirst the next time — just like the ACL tear won’t stop him from running hard, nor will the ankle injury keep him away from the wall in right.
Accidents happen. Eaton thinks playing tentative only increases the chances of them. Martinez knows it’s hard to slow Eaton down and admitted he’s not quite sure about 155 games. Eaton told Martinez that number and the manager, as he does, suggested they take it one day at a time. But Eaton is a big part of Washington’s blueprint either way, hitting first as the everyday starter in right. Martinez sees that Eaton’s long at-bats wear down pitchers and feed Washington’s lineup to start games. Eaton’s durability should be a heavy factor in the team’s results.
“If he’s feeling good and moving well, he’s going to be the same guy playing with his hair on fire and diving all over the place,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “He’s always got a dirty uniform. That’s who he is; that’s in his DNA. I don’t think we could change that if we wanted to. And we never want to do that."
Once more, for good measure, Eaton aims to play the whole season and push himself like he always has. He’s hellbent on it. He doesn’t care if the logic lines up. He is a veteran leader — and, technically, the Nationals’ replacement for Bryce Harper in right — and wants to send a wordless message to the team’s young outfielders, his other teammates and anyone who thinks he has been slowed by the ACL, his ankle or age.
“That’s one way to lose respect in the clubhouse; that’s one way to lose respect in the Major League Baseball neighborhood,” Eaton said of lessening his intensity. “It doesn’t matter how old you are and what shape you’re in. Do it to the best of your ability, and give it 110 percent.”
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