Earlier this season, when Barrera was slumping in Rochester, he asked Noll if he could borrow one of his black maple bats. When Barrera was promoted July 3, the bat rode on the plane with him.
“Because Jake gets hits, plain and simple,” Barrera said Monday afternoon, a few hours before he belted Ross Detwiler’s first-pitch curveball to center. “And apparently when I use it, I get hits, too.”
At the moment, Barrera is right on both fronts. Entering Tuesday, Noll had a batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage slash line of .332/.370/.558 in 58 games with Rochester. In 25 plate appearances with the Nationals, Barrera had five singles, a triple and a homer, good for bloated numbers in a tiny sample. So far this month, he has notched his first career hit, his first career extra-base hit and his first career homer with Noll’s bat. He also has worked his first career walk, scored his first career run and collected his first career RBI. (He entered Tuesday with four.)
Noll and Barrera have grown close on the fringe of Washington’s plans. Noll, 27, was added to the 40-man roster before the 2019 season and removed from it at the end of 2020. He has hit at every level of the minors and impressed in a brief stint with the Nationals in September. Barrera debuted in 2019, missed all of 2020 after testing positive for a banned substance — a suspension he appealed and filed a lawsuit over — then was back with the club for Opening Day, when catchers Yan Gomes and Alex Avila were on the coronavirus-related injured list.
Barrera dropped the suit when MLB shortened his suspension from 80 games to 60, meaning he could return for the start of this season. With Gomes on the IL with a left oblique strain and Avila there with bilateral calf strains, Barrera is sharing the spot with veteran René Rivera. Manager Dave Martinez started Barrera in back-to-back games Sunday and Monday, and that decision worked out. Barrera singled before scoring the winning run of a walk-off win over the San Diego Padres on Sunday. Then he homered against the Miami Marlins, added a single and caught seven scoreless innings from Jon Lester on Monday.
“When I came up and got sent down after those first three days, Davey said he really wanted me to work on my offensive game,” Barrera recalled Monday night. “And I really wanted to get better at it, and I’m still trying to get better at it, working with [hitting coach] Kevin Long and [assistant hitting coach Pat Roessler] down there in the cage each and every day. I get here early, and I want to keep getting better. I know that I have a long way to go, but just trying to put good at-bats together, get on base and do whatever I can to help the team.”
The Nationals have had trouble developing an everyday catcher and have instead relied on trades and free agents to fill the position. That includes, but is not limited to, Wilson Ramos, Matt Wieters, Gomes, Kurt Suzuki and Avila in recent years. Barrera could become the rare catcher who ascends from the system for a fixed spot on the roster.
Since he was drafted in 2016, as a sixth-round pick out of the University of Texas, Barrera has been praised for his receiving and game-calling. The Nationals were drawn to a bilingual catcher who could communicate well with English- and Spanish-speaking pitchers. In April, when Gomes and Avila were out, Stephen Strasburg asked for Barrera to catch his first start. On Monday, Lester pointed to Barrera’s ability to learn his pitch mix and craft a game plan on the fly.
“He’s been up here with a different attitude,” Martinez said. “He just wants to learn every day. He’s done a great job with our pitching staff. He’s working on hitting with [the coaches] in the cages and really, really took a lot of things that we talked about with him in spring training to heart. . . . You can see that he’s improved a lot.”
As for Noll’s bat, there is one issue: Barrera doesn’t have another.
Once he’s jammed on a pitch, if the wood splinters even a bit, he will have to make a change. So he went ahead and ordered a batch of the same model. While customizing it, he paused to consider what to put above the sweet spot. He laughed because it wasn’t an obvious choice.
“Jake’s my best friend, so I really did think about it,” Barrera said Monday. “But no, no. I went with my name.”
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