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Dee Strange-Gordon hopes to impress Nationals with ‘lost art’ of base running

“I was wreaking havoc on the bases when stealing bases was being phased out by a lot of teams,” Nationals utility man Dee Strange-Gordon said. “It’s sort of a lost art now.” (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — If Dee Strange-Gordon makes the Washington Nationals, the reason could be on the door leading out the back of the spring training clubhouse. That’s where, as a new feature this year, the Nationals are tracking the good and bad of the team’s base running. Green marks on the poster board mean a player is excelling. Red marks on the right side are bad.

And Strange-Gordon, a 33-year-old utility man who was a back-to-back all-star in his 20s, has a lot of green marks. He actually has the most of anyone in camp, a lead he padded in the Nationals’ 10-8 exhibition loss to the Houston Astros on Thursday. Hustle double in the first? Green mark. Scoring from second on Juan Soto’s dribbled single? Another green mark. On Friday morning, Eric Young Jr., first base coach and keeper of the chart, may just take a small bucket of green paint and splash it next to Strange-Gordon’s name.

“That’s who he is,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “Everybody looks at Dee, and it will rise what they want to do … within reason. Dee Gordon is a really good base runner, and he’s really fast. But it will push them to be better and better and better.”

Strange-Gordon has six hits in 15 at-bats this spring, building his case to be a part of Washington’s bench. Since he’s on a minor league deal, the Nationals would have to clear room on the 40-man roster if they wanted to carry him. Against the Astros, he batted leadoff and played left field. Between drills and exhibitions, he has bounced between left, center, shortstop and second, where he has made 693 of his 913 career starts. Martinez’s desire for versatile bench players could work in his favor.

With Nelson Cruz penned in as their designated hitter, the Nationals are expected to carry a backup catcher (Riley Adams), a backup infielder (Ehire Adrianza), a fourth outfielder (Andrew Stevenson or Yadiel Hernandez) and one more reserve. That could mean having both Stevenson, who is out of minor league options, and Hernandez, who is rough on defense but has a solid left-handed bat. Or it could mean giving someone such as Strange-Gordon a shot.

His last at-bats were with the Seattle Mariners in 2020. Last season, he was employed by the Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates — four-fifths of the National League Central — but never cracked a major league roster.

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He led the National League in stolen bases (58) and batting average (.333) with the Miami Marlins in 2015. Last season, the Nationals had one player (Trea Turner, who was traded in July) with double-digit steals. Across the majors, just six players — Turner, Starling Marte, Whit Merrifield, Cedric Mullins, Myles Straw and Tommy Edman — finished with 30 or more. But Strange-Gordon feels speed, contact and experience can still contribute to wins.

“I was wreaking havoc on the bases when stealing bases was being phased out by a lot of teams,” Strange-Gordon said at his locker. “It’s sort of a lost art now.”

Could that make his skill set more valuable?

“You’d hope, right?” Strange-Gordon quipped. “But no! It’s made me less valuable because teams aren’t emphasizing what I can do.”

Does he think that’s shortsighted?

“I’m not trying to stir trouble now,” Strange-Gordon replied. “I won’t stir it up. I just need to be the best version of me. How about that?”

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With that, Strange-Gordon patted his chest a few times. He smiled at the floor. Because he was released by the Pirates on Aug. 1, he was able to negotiate with teams during the lockout this offseason. And because he’s on a minor league deal, he arrived in West Palm Beach for minor league camp in February, lining up for groundballs next to players nearly half his age.

One afternoon, he went from chatting in his corner of veterans to sitting by a pair of rookies, leaning way back in his chair. On Thursday, a few hours before dirtying his jersey with a headfirst slide, he dribbled a basketball through the clubhouse before asking whether that was allowed. But the staple of his routine is checking the schedule by the door, vowing to never be late. That also takes him to the green-specked post board.

Base running nuances that earn players a green mark: hustle double, infield single, advancing on a sacrifice, advancing on a “dirtball” or wild pitch, scoring from first, scoring from second, going first to third, stealing a base, advancing on an error and breaking up a double play.

Base running nuances that earn players a red mark: getting picked off, grounding into a double play, getting caught stealing, jogging down the first base line, taking a short primary lead, touching the base with your left foot while running, missing the chance to take 90 feet, missing a sign, failing to touch first on a flyout.

Martinez’s biggest pet peeves are when a player misses a sign or is slow out of the box on a single, passing on the chance for a “hustle double.” On top of his hustle double Thursday, Strange-Gordon had earned green marks for two infield hits, scoring from second, going first to third and advancing on an error. He promises that his speed has gone nowhere. His head seems to be in a good spot, too.

“I can still run. I can still play defense. I can still hit the ball all over the field,” he said. “They want me to be myself, so that’s what I’m showing — anything to chip in.”