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Donovan Casey, a Nationals’ prospect, is the next outfielder in line for a chance

"When I’m free and having fun and just going out there and playing baseball, that’s when I’m at my best," Donovan Casey said. (Stephen Lasnick/Rochester Red Wings)
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To understand Donovan Casey, to show his obvious strengths and one big flaw, his 2019 stat line is a good place to start. With the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, the high Class A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Casey bashed 20 homers, stole 20 bases and struck out 140 times, more than 31 percent of his plate appearances. He was both dynamic — a word often used by former coaches and teammates to describe him — and perplexing as he searched for the right blend of aggression and patience in the box.

And though he’s still trying to strike that balance, Casey feels closer. After joining the Washington Nationals in late July in the four-player package for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, the outfielder crushed Class AA pitching and was quickly promoted to the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings. Since arriving there, he has 15 hits, including six doubles and a homer, in 62 at-bats. But in a very limited sample, his strikeouts have spiked again, leaving Casey, 25, to sift through his process some more.

He wants to hunt early-count fastballs and, when possible, avoid hitting with two strikes. The self-described perfectionist also wants to stop being so hard on himself.

The Nationals’ deadline fire sale unfolded in a matter of days. But it was years in the making.

“Learning to just go out there and have fun is where now it’s like ... I’m becoming free,” Casey said on a video call with reporters in mid-August. “... When I’m free and having fun and just going out there and playing baseball, that’s when I’m at my best. That’s where everything, like athleticism and all, takes over. Not so much trying to be perfect any more. Just trying to simplify everything.”

Easier planned than done, of course. But if Casey keeps beating opponents and himself, this solid start with the Nationals could be well timed.

On Tuesday, the Washington optioned Victor Robles, once their surefire center fielder, to the Red Wings. Lane Thomas, 26 and acquired at the deadline, will start in center for at least the immediate future. Their backup outfielders are Andrew Stevenson and veteran Gerardo Parra — who went on the 10-day injured list Sunday — plus Josh Bell, apparently, after he played left this week. It all puts Casey in an interesting spot.

Immediately, he’s on the outside looking in at the outfield picture. Glancing ahead to spring training in 2022, though, there should be plenty of room to advance. Parra, 34, is almost certainly gone after this year. Stevenson is out of minor league options after this season, meaning the Nationals will have to carry him on their next Opening Day roster or put him on waivers, allowing the other 29 teams to claim the 27-year-old. And Robles, who has struggled since the beginning of 2020, is in a tricky situation.

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Casey has played only 18 games in AAA and is not on Washington’s 40-man roster. So simultaneously, he’s on the edge of a call-up and a few steps away. With Robles expected to play every day in center this month, Casey will shift to either of the corners. The Dodgers divvied his reps among left, center and right. On Thursday, in a game that featured a diving catch for Robles in center, Casey struck out in each of his four plate appearances. He now has 29 since leaping to AAA.

“Some guys can get in their own head about a fear of failure," said Mike Gambino, who was Casey’s head coach at Boston College. “Donovan, it’s not that. Donovan gets in his own head because he’s so competitive. It’s in a positive way that can turn into a bit of a negative if he’s pressing a lot. But Donovan wants to win, he wants to help the team, so that can make him overthink. It can be honed.”

While recruiting Casey, Gambino flew to watch him play in Arizona. Teams had three games a day, yet the afternoons were kept clear because of the high desert temperatures. One of the evenings, Casey bounced a routine groundball to second, a throwaway result in an otherwise impressive showcase for him. But then he busted from the box and nearly beat the throw.

Gambino would not have blamed him for taking it easy. Casey didn’t, though, further spiking the coach’s interest. At BC, he always was full tilt, with Gambino and the staff having to sometimes rein him in. Maybe going first to third on that single was too risky. No, he couldn’t serve as the Eagles’ closer for every game of a weekend series. But Casey did often move from right field to the pitcher’s mound in the ninth, his jersey caked in dirt, his face smeared with sweat and eye black. Gambino recalls a fastball-change-up combination that was virtually unhittable.

“And he went all out with his pranks, too,” Gambino said with a laugh. “He was the guy that if his roommate came back from dinner, his socks and boxers are going to be soaking in the freezer of the hotel room. He doesn’t go halfway.”

Casey arrived with a loose feel for outfield routes and left college as a polished defender. He also displayed little power there — hitting four homers in three seasons — until his numbers jumped with the Quakes in 2019. That’s when his homers and strikeouts moved in tandem, as if attached by a string.

The next step is bottling the pop, even adding some, while smoothing out the holes. He doesn’t have to rush.

“When I try to go out and try to do too much and try to perfect a swing or perfect an approach, you think more about that than you do about going into that game and just playing,” Casey said of what the minors have taught him. “So that’s where it can be a downfall sometimes, but I’ve learned a lot now, and it’s a lot easier for me.”

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