WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Dave Martinez looked up, then down to the sun-drenched pavement, then tapped his foot once, twice, a third time against the grass. The Washington Nationals’ manager could not come up with an emergency catcher for the coming season. He was stumped.
Austin is the Nationals’ new bullpen catcher. Martinez laughed because, in reality, activating him is not an option. Emergency catchers in baseball are not like emergency goaltenders in hockey. They have to be on the roster already, a position player brave enough to squat behind the plate. There are few situations when one is needed, making this more of a fun spring training thought exercise and less of an actual problem.
But the Nationals learned in October that the need for an emergency catcher can arise — and fast.
“That was a crazy night,” Martinez said while wiping sweat from his forehead, as if he were stressed all over again. “A crazy, crazy night.”
It was Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. Washington was facing the Cardinals in St. Louis. Two days prior, in Game 5 of the NL Division Series, Kurt Suzuki was injured by a high fastball that hit his wrist and helmet. He entered Major League Baseball’s concussion protocol, meaning he was ineligible for the NLCS opener and had to be cleared after a battery of tests.
So the Nationals were left with a choice: Replace Suzuki on the roster, meaning he would be out for the entire series, or play with 24 players — and just one catcher — and pray that Yan Gomes would avoid injury.
They went with the latter.
“We rolled the dice,” Martinez said. “We knew Kurt was probably a day or two from returning and really didn’t want to burn him for the whole NLCS. I looked at the coaches and it was just like: ‘Well, here we go.’ ”
That began a scramble for an emergency catcher, as if there wasn’t enough going on. Reliever Daniel Hudson was in Phoenix awaiting the birth of his third daughter. The Nationals made a last-minute roster tweak to account for that, placing Hudson on the paternity list and activating Wander Suero for one game. MLB rules required that a pitcher fill Hudson’s spot, so the Nationals could not use it for another catcher to slide behind Gomes. That solution was suggested and immediately shot down.
The next idea was making Gerardo Parra the emergency catcher. But since Parra is left-handed and catchers typically aren’t, the Nationals kept thinking. That led them to Brian Dozier, the second baseman who, by the playoffs, had lost his spot in the lineup and was coming off the bench. He was their guy.
“He was super excited,” outfielder Michael A. Taylor recalled. “I mean, you know Dozier. Nuts.”
You know Dozier, in hindsight, means you know the dude who sang “Calma,” shirtless and covered in alcohol, in each of the Nationals’ playoff celebrations. But now picture this: Players are rushing to prepare for a critical matchup. They had arrived in St. Louis the afternoon before, dazed and hung over. Aníbal Sánchez, who almost exclusively pitched to Suzuki last season, is in a meeting with Gomes, pitching coach Paul Menhart and advance scout Jim Cuthbert, who shares insights on the Cardinals’ lineup. Hitters rip through reports on St. Louis starter Miles Mikolas.
And Dozier is in the indoor batting cage taking baseballs off his chest.
“[Bullpen coach Henry Blanco] was whipping them in there,” Martinez said. Martinez made the motion of skipping a short pitch in front of a catcher, over and over, and in this case that catcher was Dozier. “We had to get gear that fit him, he threw it on and, for like 20 minutes, he was just getting peppered with low balls to see if he could block them. He was okay, too!”
The Cardinals never learned of the predicament. Neither did journalists or fans. Sánchez carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning, Gomes stayed healthy, and the Nationals won, 2-0. Dozier did not appear in the game. The Nationals soon swept St. Louis. Then they won the World Series.
But for one crazy, crazy night of the title run, the emergency catcher was in play. Dozier departed in free agency and is fighting for a job with the San Diego Padres. Parra landed a two-year deal with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan. The options Martinez considered this week — Wilmer Difo, Adrián Sanchez, Jake Noll — are unlikely to make the roster come Opening Day. That’s when Martinez ran out of answers.
He figures that, in a pinch, he would use a utility player, such as Taylor or Asdrúbal Cabrera. He knows whom he would not use, a list that includes Trea Turner, Victor Robles and Juan Soto — young stars he would want to keep away from danger. The low-hanging joke is that Max Scherzer would happily catch. But the truth is that, just five months from that scramble in St. Louis, the Nationals don’t have a plan.
“Can you imagine me asking Ryan Zimmerman to get behind the plate?” Martinez cracked while walking away. “I’ll think some more and let you know what I come with.”
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