CHICAGO — The wind blew in at Wrigley Field as Wednesday afternoon turned to evening, daring hitters to send a baseball through it, then slapping away their every attempt. So when Michael A. Taylor hit a ball in the air to right-center in the eighth inning, with the Nationals clinging to a one-run lead that just never seemed to grow, no one thought it had much chance.
“Honestly,” said Taylor, not long after that ball became the first postseason grand slam in franchise history, “I didn’t think it was going to get out.”
When Addison Russell hit a ball as well as one can hit it in the second — “flushed it,” as the players say — it fell harmlessly into Jayson Werth’s glove in front of the left field wall.
When Werth hit a deep line drive to right-center in the seventh, Jon Jay tracked it down near the warning track with little drama and Werth concluded that no right-handed hitter would be able to drive a ball out of the park to right-center on this night. Heck, left field was probably out of play, too.
“Mikey Taylor proved me wrong,” Werth said.
Taylor’s grand slam in the Nationals’ Game 4 win over the Chicago Cubs provided much-needed insurance and showed a promising capacity to handle big moments. Taylor, 26, has shown that throughout this series. He is 3 for 11 with two walks and the highest postseason batting average (.273) of any Nationals starter.
But that grand slam also represented the extent of Taylor’s talent, the rare power he has shown after spending countless batting practices peppering the farthest reaches of every big league ballpark — or clearing spring training ballparks entirely. Taylor has realized that talent after taking over for the injured Adam Eaton in center field this season. He emerged as a weapon in 2017. In these playoffs, he has been the most consistent weapon the Nationals have.
Manager Dusty Baker thinks Taylor will win a Gold Glove someday. His outfield instincts are that good. Many evaluators inside and outside the organization think Taylor will be a consistent 20-stolen-base player. His speed is that good. He stole 17 bases this year in an injury-interrupted season. But the asset that keeps getting Taylor chances, the tool that has stood out all along, is his power.
“That took a man to hit that through that wind tonight,” Daniel Murphy said. Taylor hit the ball with an exit velocity of 106 mph, and it only just landed in the basket above the right-center field wall.
“To leave the way he did, that just shows you how far and how hard he hit that ball,” Werth said. “On a different day, with a different wind, I would like to have seen how far that ball would have went.”
When spring training began, Taylor was running out of chances. The Nationals had traded two elite prospects for a new center fielder. Taylor, their former center fielder of the future, had received two chances to play regularly in the big leagues. He had not seized them, swinging without discernment, striking out too often.
So when Eaton tore his anterior cruciate ligament in April, and Taylor got his third chance in three seasons, Baker told him how lucky he was to have it. Talent earns a second chance. Usually only elite talent like Taylor’s — that tantalizing combination of power, speed, and defensive instincts — earns a third.
But Taylor seized it, cutting down on strikeouts and building up his average. He hit .271 this season, nearly 40 points higher than his career average. He also hit 19 homers in 118 games, suggesting that he will be a 20- — perhaps even 25- — homer player if he stays healthy.
“Some guys, it takes a year or two to learn. Sometimes it takes three or four years to learn,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “But this year it seems like he’s been able to kind of just slow everything down a little bit and let his talents take over. His tools and what he can do on the baseball field, there’s not many guys who can do all five like he can.”
In this Nationals lineup, loaded with stars and established power hitters, Taylor has been a relative afterthought all season. But in October, it always seems the afterthoughts — the stars not planned around, the guys at the bottom of the order — get a chance to shine before it’s over. Taylor might not be an afterthought for long. He has molded this Nationals season and helped save it Wednesday night.
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