It was another snapshot moment in time for the Nationals organization.
In a late February spring training game in Florida, the Nationals faced off against All-Star David Wright and the Mets. But as you looked out on the diamond, it wasn’t Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper doing battle with New York. Instead, it was the best of the Nationals’ prospects. Guys like Anthony Rendon, Nathan Karns, Matt Skole, Destin Hood, Eury Perez and others.
And there at shortstop was Zach Walters. The Nationals raced out to a 5-1 lead and ended up winning 6-4.
“I remember that,” Walters said. “I remember someone saying something about our lineup, remarking, ‘Who are these people?’ “
Well, maybe all those guys weren’t household names to all of baseball just yet. But their talent was getting noticed by those in the know.
Walters said there was a reason the Nationals prospects played as well as the big league team that night. It comes from the makeup of the organization, from the rookie leagues all the way to the guys that suit up and go every night at Nationals Park.
“The Nationals have that winning mentality throughout the system,” Walters said. “It doesn’t matter if you are playing minor league ball, a big league game or the World Series. It is all about getting the job done and doing what you are supposed to do.”
Walters took advantage of his opportunity to work with the big leaguers and the Nationals ‘complete coaching staff in Viera, Fla. He also did this with the major league coaching staff while playing in the Arizona Fall League.
“I just pick guys’ brains and try be a student of the game,” Walters said. “The coaches are giving me more of a free pass, letting me use my athletic ability. I think they are lying to me, but that is what kind of helps me to relax.
Walters has also ventured around the field, gaining experience playing different positions. It is an opportunity to add versatility to is game, just like guys like Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore have done in recent seasons while playing in the Nationals system. Walters relished the chance to play a different spot and called it a golden opportunity.
“It is absolutely (a big moment) for any guy,” Walters said. “You can show you can play one position that maybe you thought no one would look at you. It can make you more valuable to not just the Nationals, but to anyone.
“For the Nationals, they make you feel like anyone can (play at any position) at any one moment. They say, ‘You ever play second or left field?’ Nope, I am going to today. And they are like, ‘All right, go do it.’ ”
Growing up, Walters was the quintessential western kid in a military family. Walters was born and lived one year in Cheyenne, Wyo. With his dad in the Air Force, they transferred to Bozeman, Mont., and he lived there for more than 10 years. His family then moved to Las Vegas, where he went to high school and played a lot of baseball. He decided on the University of San Diego because the Toreros offered the best combination for education, baseball and family.
At San Diego, Walters was able to attend school and meet two of his best friends in teammates Sammy Solis and Sean Nicol. They all started their pro careers on a different team. But after being moved from the Diamondbacks to the Nationals, Walters was thrilled to be reunited with his fellow San Diego products.
“When I got traded over, it was a breath of fresh air, I was like ‘Yes!’ ” Walters smiled. “They are guys I already know and great guys on and off the field. Quality individuals. I am glad they are here.”
And his 2013 season is off to a great start at the plate. The last few months of the 2012 season and into this campaign, Walters is showing some big power. He said it comes from how comfortable he feels at the plate during each at-bat, a far different feeling than when he first arrived in the minors.
“I feel a little more natural right now,” Walters said. “It is always about trying to find yourself. Every guy presses a little bit. The Nationals have been nothing but supportive, trying to let me do my thing. And at the same time, they are giving their input. With the hitting coaches and our staff, it feels like a family. When I go up there, I already have a pretty solid base.”
As the story goes, at spring training in big league camp, Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth saw Walters’ neon shoelaces during spring training and told the youngster to get rid of them. Walters obliged. But he also appreciated how available the big leaguers were to giving advice and just talking baseball with the prospects.
“It is exciting but, for a so-called young buck, it is a privilege,” Walters said. “It is cool to be around guys that have been there. They know our routine. They know how to handle stuff. I can bounce ideas off of them. I enjoy it. I like being around the dudes. I just like getting to the clubhouse and seeing what’s new every day.”