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Adam Eaton will again bat leadoff for Nationals once ready, but first he must practice patience

Adam Eaton was extremely effective leading off for the Nationals before his injury last season. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Adam Eaton hadn't heard the news.

So, Adam, what do you think about batting leadoff this year, as you have almost all of your career — not No. 2, like last season?

"Who said that?" responded the Washington Nationals outfielder quizzically.

Your manager, Dave Martinez, has already said three times here at spring training that “Eaton will bat first,” unless something makes him change his mind.

“Good, good . . . that’s nice of him,” said Eaton, the 5-foot-8 (in his dreams) player nicknamed Mighty Mouse who missed the last 139 games of the 2017 season after a gruesome injury that blew out “everything” in his ankle and tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his left knee.

Then Eaton, who is a fanatical lover of vintage Corvettes, began to grin. “Wow, that’s like being given the keys to the Ferrari,” he said, eyes widening. “If I get on base, I get to ride around while all the guys hitting behind me do the hard work of being the engine.”

The biggest offseason addition to the Nats, by far, could be the healthy return of Eaton. Bryce Harper’s first words, when asked to evaluate the Nats, were, “Getting Adam Eaton back is going to be huge for us. Having him and Trea [Turner] at the top right there . . . you guys all saw it until Eaton got hurt [on April 28], it was one of the most incredible 1-2’s I’ve ever seen.”

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Who fed off that duo most? Harper, who hit .405 with 25 RBI in 23 games with that duo ahead of him. Some players who arrive in a big controversial trade — the Nats gave up three pitching prospects to get Eaton — choke when trying to justify their high price tag. Eaton gave the Nats exactly what they hoped for in those 23 games, scoring 24 runs with a .297/.393/.462 slash line that was better than his performance in the previous three seasons (.290/.362/.422) when FanGraphs ranked him the 22nd-best player in MLB by Wins Above Replacement.

“I have to remind people that Adam played for us last year,” said Turner, who batted leadoff then. “He got on base, had [10] extra-base hits, ran wild. I had the best seat in the house. This guy had like a 6.0 WAR [in 2016].

“When he was playing, we were pretty incredible.”

With Eaton, the Nats averaged 6.26 runs, a pace for 1,014. Presumably, that’s unsustainable. No team in the 162-game era since 1961 has scored that many, not even in the PED period. But you see why the Nats are excited. They believe he’s the ignition switch to their roaring engine. Without him, they scored 4.86 runs, even though replacement Michael A. Taylor hit well.

Turner has no issues if he ends up at No. 2. “Leadoff might be a little easier, but I hit well No. 2,” said Turner, who’s batted .434 with 13 RBI in 12 starts at No. 2. “Stolen base attempts go down some at No. 2, but you hit for more power and drive in more runs. That’s not good or bad. It works out either way.”

General Manager Mike Rizzo pointed out that few players suffer such a bad injury to both their ankle and knee. Hope for a perfect recovery, but don’t assume it. Even Eaton fretted about how his knee would respond to full spring-training defensive drills and live batting practice. Would the knee swell?

So far, no problems. “It was a good surprise, wasn’t it?” Martinez said this week. “He’s coming along. And you guys know Adam. He wants to play tomorrow if he could.”

But a carefully paced spring training, with Opening Day as a target, but not a necessity, is the Nats’ plan.

“I don’t have the great big ‘grandma and grandpa’ scars that [former] players do. Mine’s just 2½ inches,” Eaton said, though he could put no weight on the leg for two months. When one leg atrophies, the return to equal strength in both limbs is dicey. “You have to keep the good leg strong, too, because doctors say that your hurt leg ‘wants to be like’ the good one, but no stronger. . . .The body’s amazing.”

Eaton’s presence and personality, as well as his play, are vital because Martinez, like Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon, runs his club on positive-thinking fuel. A club that’s too-cool-for-school might smirk. Eaton won’t. He said he may have “played like a bat out of hell” too often. Including the play on which he was hurt.

“It was weird. I was nervous before I went to the plate. We’re down [7-5] in the ninth, two men on, no outs,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘I have to get on base.’ I’ve never been a ‘have-to’ player. I let the moment get the best of me. A rash decision. I had the play beat by half-a-step.”

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Eaton shakes his head with disgust that he cost himself a season in which he might have been a major October help; maybe he was, in part, living up to the tag he got the day he arrived in trade. “One reason we got him is that always plays with his hair on fire,” Rizzo said. “And we need some of that.”

As Eaton lay on an examination table after his injury, several Nats surrounded him, some touching him to console him, others in tears. Eaton kept apologizing, saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I let you down,” according to one witness.

Perhaps he understood what Turner said this week — Eaton is a made-for-October player. “Adam bunts, walks, runs the bases so well. He’s a big ‘team’ guy. He brings energy,” Turner said. “That all helps in the playoffs.”

Eaton’s response to his disaster gives an open window to his athletic character. “Zack Cozart had the same exact injury,” Eaton said of the Los Angeles Angels shortstop, who also hit first base wrong at full speed in mid-2015 while with Cincinnati. “We’ve talked. He said, ‘Slower can be better.’ Be more methodical, make your cuts cleaner. Sometimes I hit the gas and the tires just spin. He said it made him a better player and he was an all-star last year.

“So, I’m kind of excited,” Eaton said. “But I have to grow a lot of patience.”

The Nats just hope for a return of the old Eaton, or something close. Eaton keeps using the word “better.” For example, he wants to master left field. He’s always graded out as an elite right fielder in part because, being short and whippet quick, he makes flat-out diving catches routinely, charges hits like an infielder and has had accurate throws over 100 mph with a running start. Yet, for some reason, he’s just an average center fielder. Now he’s back in a corner spot.

Why? Because his injury gave Taylor a season to blossom as a hitter, while also grading out in center field as one of MLB’s best defenders at any position. Leave it to Eaton, the relentless optimist, to have a synergistic catastrophe.

“I’m excited to play with him. Michael covers so much ground in the gaps. Harp [in right field] and I can get to the corners [more],” Eaton said. “We need to move as a unit and always know where we are in [dividing up] space.”

Eaton paused to summarize the last 10 excruciating, harrowing, boring and drudgery-filled months, as well as the risks of reaching Opening Day intact.

“Yes, I see a lot of positives,” said Mighty Mouse, eying the keys to the Ferrari.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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