“I’m sorry. I overdid it,” Adam Eaton said after being injured on Friday. (Nick Wass/AP)
Columnist

As Adam Eaton lay in pain on an examination table after the Washington Nationals’ game Friday night, his teammates began to gather around him, first 10, then perhaps 15 of them. Some put their hands on the little center fielder called Mighty Mouse and Spanky to try to calm him, ease him, let him know they were with him as medical personnel manipulated his left leg and knee to make a first guess at the damage.

“I’m sorry. I overdid it. If it’s Game 7 of the World Series, that’s okay,” said Eaton, who suffered a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament while straining for the last inch to reach first base and beat out an infield hit in the ninth inning against the Mets.

“No. That’s how you always play. That’s exactly why we got you,” said one member of the Nationals who was near him. Then other Nats echoed the same.

Teammates always sympathize with their injured, offer encouragement, just as they did when Wilson Ramos tore up his knee late last season. But the scene around Eaton was unusual with some players near tears and exceptional for a player who has only been known to his mates for about two months.

Adam Eaton gets to people. They see his spunk and brains, and all the skills he has battled to acquire for a decade, jammed inside one of the smallest frames in the sport, and they admire him. They notice the furrowed worry lines on his forehead, the kind you see on men twice his 28 years, and they sense how much he is driven. Finally, his modesty, civility and good humor never vary; so he’s instant buoyancy for the mood of a clubhouse. The only knock: Some White Sox players on lousy teams resented how hard he still played in August. Showing me up?

“Yeah, that happens on some [bleepy] teams,” Jayson Werth said recently. “But that’ll play just right on this club. He’s already fit in here.”

It’s the Nats who are going to have to look for somebody else to save the day because their Mighty Mouse is going to be gone from the field, even though they’ll still want him in the clubhouse, until next season.

“A big piece of us was taken off the field. He filled that room,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said on Saturday. “He’s going to be missed.”

The Nats were just beginning to see what they got in a trade last winter — a .393 on-base percentage and 42 times on base with 24 runs scored in 23 games. The previous two years combined, Eaton reached base 500 times. In 2017, his pace was 289 times on base, a Pete Rose level, but with more pop and speed if he’d kept it up.

Some laughed at the Nats’ winter evaluation that Eaton was a secret star, worth three, four or five extra wins a year. But no Nat is laughing now. The team got to see what it had — a leadoff ignition switch, a high-energy exemplar of hard-nosed hustle and a player whose energy fed others — just as it lost him.

This is an enormous blow, perhaps even a ceiling-limiting one, though no pro would admit such a thing. Eaton was the Nats’ big move of the offseason, one they believed in so strongly that they stuck out their tongue at baseball conventional wisdom to complete it. They were mocked within minutes. But, now, with the Nats leading MLB in many offensive categories and pitching trade pieces Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez struggling in the minors, it looked like the Nats might have unearthed an ideal puzzle piece.

For a team that may, or may not, have a two-year window for a World Series, this was a teeth-rattling April punch in the mouth. Eaton was that vital.

The Nats can put Michael A. Taylor in center field as they did in 2015 when injuries hit, and he can probably, as he did then, hit something like .225 with about a dozen homers and steals. They might eventually bring up their hottest developed prospect, Andrew Stevenson, a left-handed hitter to platoon. They can make do.

But Washington can’t replace Eaton’s numbers or, just as important, his impact already on the clubhouse. That’s what all those teammates gathered around him knew. Chemistry is more magic than science. The Nats had it going with old-school vets Daniel Murphy, Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and four-time all-star Matt Wieters combining with bolt-of-lightning talents Bryce Harper and Trea Turner. Eaton stirred the pot with his scampering, diving example.

“Adam brought swagger and energy here like no one else has done,” Rizzo said.

On Friday, hours before Eaton’s injury, we had a long talk, and it reinforced why his teammates have bonded with him so quickly.

One Eaton trademark is his ability to “cut the bases” with his body tilted so far he almost seems likely to fall. Last year, he ranked second in MLB in percentage of singles on which he went first-to-third and percentage of doubles on which he scored from first. How’s this possible for a fast man who’s not a speed merchant?

“My father taught me to use my inside leg to touch the bases, not the outside leg like almost everybody learns,” Eaton said of his dad, Glenn, who played some pro ball in Spain when he was in the Air Force. “It helps you get your shoulder turned [downward] quicker. You tilt with everything going in the right direction. And you can cut every base that way without ever [bellying] out. You don’t run as fast, but you cut so much distance that you’re more efficient.

“Other players have higher horsepower motors, but sometimes you have to calm down to get the traction. I love cars. Corvettes can be too brash with horsepower, so they aren’t the quickest on some roads. You have to be in tune with the track.”

The day the Nats got Eaton at the winter meetings, many MLB writers and executives were in Washington. I asked baseball people from Chicago for their experiences with Eaton. One man told me that, when Eaton came to the White Sox in 2013, his expertise on Corvettes became known.

“My father was terminally ill. He had a vintage Corvette he wanted me to sell for him,” the man said. “Adam found out and looked me up. He didn’t know me at all. He used his off day to take me to [Corvette dealers] to get the best price.”

Eaton oversaw the process, gratis, until the car was sold, before the father died. On Friday, I told this story to Eaton, though I couldn’t recall the man’s name.

“Oh, sure, I remember him,” Eaton said. “What was his name? Real nice guy. Now that’s going to bother me till I come up with his name.”

Eaton had no reason to help. Or remember the name. But it bugs him that he can’t. Add that to the reasons that his examination table was circled by Nats.

Eaton looked around the Nats’ locker room Friday, already at home. “Probably a third of the guys in here are like me — late bloomers, not the biggest or most talented when they were young, maybe went to mid-major schools and got drafted in the 15th round or later,” said Eaton, who went to Miami of Ohio and was picked in the 19th round, 571st overall, in 2010.

“But that doesn’t tell you who’s going to have longevity. What happens when you fail? And you will. The game tries to eat you up, if it can,” said Eaton who, right now, looks like he’s on the dinner plate of an often mean sport. “That’s when you have to bear down and get better. That’s when you’re tested.”

Right now, the staggered Nationals only have one good piece of news about Adam Eaton. He’ll be back to take that test for four more years.

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