Gerardo Parra took off. The Washington Nationals right fielder had not set up like his fellow outfielders, shaded in anticipation for a rare pull. Pete Alonso was one of a few New York Mets hitters not to be defended as if he’d go the other way — though, in the sixth inning of Monday’s game, he did. His shot toward the gap in right-center, and the outfield alignment, meant it was impossible for center fielder Victor Robles to get there in time and implausible for Parra.
The 32-year-old is not the defender he was when he won two Gold Gloves. Monday’s matinee dragged as the Nationals fell in a 7-0 hole. Parra had every reason to let Alonso’s knock drop in, but he refused to do so. He sprinted a few dozen feet and, just as the line drive died, dived into a full extension to snare the ball just before it hit the turf. It was a play starting right fielder Adam Eaton almost assuredly could not have made, and it robbed Alonso of extra bases.
Right is the least settled of any spot in the Nationals’ outfield. Juan Soto anchors left and Robles center essentially every night, but Eaton is hurt. The 30-year-old got hit on the side of his right knee with a 91-mph fastball Aug. 28, and though he has made three plate appearances since, he missed the opener of the team’s four-game set with the Atlanta Braves on Thursday.
His absence underscores an issue: How do the Nationals handle late-game defense in right field?
“Eaton’s our right fielder, and he’s gotten way better on defense over the course of the year,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “… But moving forward, especially now he got hit, we’ll see how [late-game defense] plays out.”
Martinez said that, after roster expansion, he’d look to be more aggressive with defensive substitutions, which he seldom has used this season. The Nationals now have options, including three candidates who are seen as plus defenders: Parra, veteran Michael A. Taylor and young speedster Andrew Stevenson. It’s important to consider what happens late because outfield defense — catches such as Parra’s — might next come in a spot more consequential than a 7-0 game.
The question of who takes the early innings is irrelevant because, if he’s healthy, Eaton’s bat renders it so. His scorching August — a .329 batting average with 12 extra-base hits, including five homers — punctuated a consistent and bulldoggish approach at the plate. Parra entered Friday with three hits in his past 40 at-bats, and Taylor, despite his hitting progress in the minors, went 0-for-2 Thursday and dropped his season average to .205. Stevenson is on an unbelievable run in a small sample size — eight hits in 22 at-bats (.364) — but he’s also inexperienced.
Eaton started his career in center, and defense used to be one of his better attributes. Yet his ability in the field has suffered from serious injuries in the past few years, including a left ACL tear in 2017 and left ankle surgery in 2018. His left leg slowly strengthened throughout the season, Martinez said, and his defense has steadily improved. The numbers support the manager’s assertion, and advanced analytics peg Eaton as a slightly above-average defender in right.
“He's moving better, way better. His jumps are better,” Martinez said. “We talked a lot with him about playing deeper, and he has done that. It's been better for him.”
Still, safeguarding against a bullpen as shaky as the Nationals’ by upgrading an average defender to a very good one might help — and Soto’s bat is too valuable to remove from the lineup in most cases. The Nationals can make up ground by substituting for Eaton late in close games.
Parra seems the likeliest candidate. He has showcased his range and arm in spot starts this season, and Martinez specifically cited him when mentioning defensive replacements this week. The veteran has implicit trust from Soto and Robles because of the defensive tutoring he’s given them this season. Yet if his knack for clutch moments means he has been used earlier as a pinch hitter, Taylor provides the Nationals with a plus option as well.
The former center fielder has range but plays deferential in right. When Taylor is in center, he’ll call for flyballs pretty much until he catches them. But in right, he’ll call for the ball a maximum of three times to ensure the outfielders don’t shout over each other and, if he hears Robles call out after that third call, he’ll veer to back up the play.
Taylor could end up on the playoff roster, if the numbers work out, because he fits what Martinez described this week: “Moving forward, it’d be nice to have a guy you could count on to pinch-run and steal a base.”
Until Eaton returns, Martinez can continue deploying a platoon of Taylor (against lefties) and Parra (against righties) in right field. But, when he does, the manager must start making decisions at the end of close games he hasn’t all year. The plays of those in his stead — plays such as Parra’s diving catch — show exactly why.