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Less is more for Donovan Casey in quest to make it back to the Nationals

Donovan Casey is working his way from Rochester back to the Nationals. (Rochester Red Wings/Stephen Lasnick)

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Each one of Donovan Casey’s at-bats begins on the top step of the dugout. He times the opposing pitcher in his head. He chooses when to start his swing and drop his front foot. But in May, after he was promoted and demoted by the Washington Nationals without making his debut, those moments were filled with noise instead of planning.

Before walking to the on-deck circle for the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings, Casey often told himself he had to get a hit. He then carried that internal pressure into the box. For six days in April, he put on a Nationals uniform, sat on the bench and waited for a chance, his family and friends all watching from the stands. So when it never came, he felt the need to rush back to the majors. The whiplash ate him up.

“It’s one of the main reasons I went into a funk,” Casey, a 26-year-old outfielder, said last week at Frontier Field in Rochester. “I was trying to do more, trying to make something happen, and not focusing on having a quality at-bat. It wasn’t good.”

The numbers show a sharp contrast. With Rochester in April, Casey had a .255 average, a .328 on-base percentage and a .546 slugging percentage (good for an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .892). In May, his slash line plummeted to .172/.229/.266, his OPS of .495 cut nearly in half. His strikeouts spiked, resurfacing a concern from when the Nationals acquired him last summer in the four-prospect package for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner.

Then Casey injured his right shoulder last month on a diving attempt in St. Paul, Minn. He now considers this a lucky break.

“That little shoulder issue ended up being a blessing in disguise for Donovan,” said Matthew LeCroy, Rochester’s manager. “He couldn’t throw or anything, so we had to sit him down for about two weeks. But he was able to work in the cage and take a look at some things. He really needed the reset.”

Along with hitting coach Brian Daubach, Casey tweaked his approach and routine. He started using a heavier bat in the cage — 34 inches, 38 ounces — to remind himself to use his legs and not only rely on his hands. He moved up on the plate a bit to cover the outer half and better recognize inside pitches. He also began loading up earlier, figuring it was better to be ahead of schedule than late.

At first, though, the early load made him feel off-balance, especially since he would wait longer before planting his front foot. Only more game reps would smooth out the changes. Once he returned, Casey opted for a lighter bat than usual — 33 and a half inches, 31 ounces — to quicken his swing to inside pitches. He logged four singles and a double in his final three games in June. But so far in July, he is hitless with seven strikeouts in 13 plate appearances.

“I’m happy that tough part happened early in the season and not later on, making me stew about it all winter or something,” Casey said. “Now I feel like I’m in a much better head space, figuring out what I need to do and realizing it’s nothing with mechanics. It’s all timing. The questions I have to keep asking myself is: ‘Are you on time? Are you in a good position to drive the baseball?’

“Like the other day, I struck out but I stuck to my plan of hunting a heater to do damage with. He landed two good sliders for strikes, which is hard to do, and I felt good knowing I had the right approach.”

Casey admits he couldn’t view a result like that in April or May. When he was promoted after Dee Strange-Gordon tested positive for the coronavirus, his family and friends rushed to Pittsburgh from southern New Jersey. When three games passed and Casey didn’t play, many of them followed him to Washington, hoping to see him realize a lifelong dream. But that will have wait for the coming months or years.

The Nationals are invested in Casey after acquiring him in a blockbuster trade. Last November, they added him to their 40-man roster to protect him from being selected in the Rule 5 Draft. They tapped him in a pinch after Strange-Gordon’s positive test. But if they need an outfielder after the deadline in early August, Casey will compete with Josh Palacios and Andrew Stevenson for the spot. Palacios, 26, is on the 40-man and has been more consistent than Casey in AAA. Stevenson, 28, is not on the 40-man but has appeared for Washington in each of the past five seasons.

Just one of them, however, was with the team this spring before leaving in less than a week. And Casey wants much more than a brush with the majors.

“This year has taught me about patience in a lot of ways,” he said. “I can’t get back up there with just one swing, right? It’s a whole big process.”

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