Versatile Difo gets call to start in center field (Nats fall 8-5)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - With the injury to outfielder Michael A. Taylor, the Nationals will have to make some adjustments to the lineup with spring training winding down. Manager Davey Martinez opted to go with Wilmer Difo in center field for today’s game against the Cardinals.

Difo has played in 248 games at infield positions for the Nats over the past four seasons, but only seven games in the outfield. That doesn’t faze Martinez, who has tremendous confidence in Difo’s athletic ability to man multiple spots on the baseball field, making him a valuable super utility player.

“I just thought that he’s ready,” Martinez said. “He’s been taking fly balls out there. So we talked to him yesterday and he’s excited to play out there. I view him as a super-U guy and this is part of it.”

The super utility role is extremely valuable for the Nats skipper. That versatility is another of the many reasons why Difo will be important for the Nats this season. Martinez cautioned that he would prefer to use Difo in center field as part of a double switch or defensive substitution rather than playing him there for multiple consecutive games.

Difo-Tag-Play-Gray-Sidebar.jpg“It’s nice to have another option,” Martinez said. “It really is. He’s a switch-hitter. This will be an in-game (decision) where something happens and in game we can move guys around. The fact that he can play center field, left field, short, second, third - it’s pretty nice to have. Plus, like I said before, he may have to get catcher’s gear. He may be that third catcher.”

Difo has shown his ability to play plus defense in the infield and Martinez thinks that glove skill can translate well to the outfield.

“He’s good. I watch him track balls out there,” Martinez said. “He moves around pretty good. I wouldn’t necessarily do this if I didn’t think he could do it. But he’s pretty good out there.”

Similar to how Taylor has worked as the captain of the outfield while on defense, Martinez emphasized to Difo that he needs to call out ownership of fly balls.

“We absolutely told him he’s the center fielder,” Martinez said. “Center fielders take charge of anybody. Both corners, even the infielders. If you think you could catch it, you got to be very vocal. He understands that.

“My biggest concern with moving guys from the infield to the outfield is their throwing. We got to be careful with that.”

Taylor’s MRI results Friday revealed a sprained left knee and hip. Martinez said the Nats do not have an update on when Taylor will return.

“There’s really no timetable,” Martinez said. “Michael came in today and he said he felt a lot better than he did yesterday. I’m kind of optimistic. He’s a strong kid, so hopefully once he’s pain free he can start rehabbing right away.”

Months or weeks?

“I have no timetable,” Martinez said.

Victor Robles is the center field starter going forward. Martinez said the Nats have Andrew Stevenson as their fourth outfielder with Taylor down.

“We still got Stevenson,” Martinez said. “I like (him) a lot. And Robles is going to play. With that being said, I hope Mike is back as soon as possible. He’s a big part of our success moving forward.”

Update: The Cardinals jumped out quickly against Nats ace Max Scherzer with a leadoff triple from Tommy Edman and an RBI single from José Martínez. Scherzer then struck out Max Schrock and induced a pair of infield groundouts to end the frame.

Cardinals left-hander Austin Gomber allowed a two-out single to left-center from Anthony Rendon and a double down the right field line by Juan Soto. But Ryan Zimmerman grounded out to shortstop to end the threat.

After one inning, St. Louis leads 1-0.

Update II: Scherzer struck out the side in the second. He has four strikeouts through two innings. Yan Gomes tied the game with a mammoth solo shot off of Gomber that landed on the left field concourse. Cards left fielder Randy Arozarena did not move from his defensive spot when Gomes connected.

Two innings completed and the game is tied at 1-1.

Update III: The Nats plated four runs on three hits in the fourth, highlighted by a two-run double courtesy Trea Turner. Turner and Gomes have two hits apiece. Scherzer has retired 10 batters in a row.

After four, the Nats lead 5-1.

Update IV: Scherzer had his best outing of the spring, lasting six innings, allowing one run on four hits with no walks and nine strikeouts. He fired 87 pitches, 63 for strikes.

After six innings, the Nats lead the Cards 5-1.

Update V: Sean Doolittle suffered a blown save, allowing five runs in the ninth, highlighted by a go-ahead three-run homer off the bat of Andrew Knizler for an 8-5 lead.

The Nats go three up, three down in the bottom of the ninth and fall 8-5, relinquishing a 5-1 lead.

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