FORT MYERS, Fla. - The Nationals closed out their Grapefruit League season this afternoon with a 4-2 loss to the Red Sox.
But in my mind at least, the game takes the backseat today. The real story, the story worth telling, is of the four guys on the roster bubble who learned today that they’ll be heading north with the Nationals as part of the team’s 25-man opening day roster.
Chad Tracy, a man who slugged 27 homers with the Diamondbacks in 2005, hit just .235 with one home run in Japan last year. He came into this spring a 31-year-old seemingly nearing the end of his baseball career, hoping to do enough to fight his way back to the big leagues.
After his disappointing tenure in Japan, Tracy admits he wasn’t sure if he would ever play in the majors again. But come opening day, the left-handed-hitting corner infielder will be at Wrigley Field wearing a Nationals uniform, getting a chance to continue playing the game he loves.
“At this point in your career, your next injury could be the last time you ever play. If you don’t make the team, who knows what my decision would have been to go to Triple-A or not,” a calm Tracy said in the Nats’ clubhouse after today’s game.
“It makes it real sweet. It’s really emotional for me. I’m not going to show that in front of my teammates and all, but when I get home, to just soak it up and just kind of take it all in, I’m sure I’ll reflect on this past year.”
While Tracy is an experienced major leaguer trying to prove he can still play at that level, Steve Lombardozzi came into camp hoping to show that he’s worthy of spending a full season in the bigs.
Lombardozzi’s spot on the team has seemingly been secure for a couple weeks now, but the 23-year-old wasn’t sure he had a roster spot locked up - not even after manager Davey Johnson informed the utility infielder he’d made the squad during today’s game.
After Lombardozzi smacked a double to right in the eighth inning, Johnson approached the soft-spoken Lombardozzi and told him that just because of that extra-base hit, he was on the team. Lombardozzi wasn’t sure if his manager was serious or just messing around until reporters approached him after the game to congratulate him.
“I’m pumped,” said Lombardozzi, a big smile on his face. “That’s funny, because I wasn’t completely sure. Oh, crap.”
Brett Carroll spent time with three different organizations last season (he spent camp with the Royals, played most of the season for the Brewers’ Triple-A affiliate and finished the year in the Red Sox organization) and got just three major league at-bats the entire year. Now, the 29-year-old outfielder won’t have to worry about which minor league team he’ll be suiting up for. He’s breaking camp with a big league squad.
Carroll, who has done his best to just stay focused on the game and not stress about the roster decisions this camp, got the good news from Johnson after batting practice prior to today’s game.
“He just kind of pulled me over and said, ‘Oh, by the way, you’re on the 25-man, you’re breaking with us.’ I was like, ‘Short and sweet! Thanks Davey!’ ” Carroll said.
“I’m really excited of what’s to come. I really feel like this is going to be a big break for my career, but also just being a part of a special team like this. It’s got a lot of capability of doing some damage, so can’t put that into words, really. It’s just kind of a feeling I’m excited about.”
Then there’s Xaiver Nady, a guy who was sitting in his California home a little over two weeks ago, waiting for a call that he’d be joining camp somewhere.
The 33-year-old has battled a myriad of injuries in his career, twice having Tommy John surgery, and then suffering a fractured left hand in August of last year which ended his 2011 season. He rehabbed diligently this offseason and tried to work back into shape, but wasn’t sure what would come of it.
Just 16 days after joining the Nationals on a minor league deal, Nady finds himself on the other end of the injury spectrum, breaking camp as part of the 25-man roster because of ailments to two Nats outfielders.
“The last two weeks have been chaos for me, trying to find my way around and early work down there and late work,” Nady said. “Taking at-bats, bouncing around on fields, but hopefully it makes me a better player. Obviously, I’m excited to be here and excited to have the opportunity to help out.”
No one knows what will happen when Michael Morse and Rick Ankiel eventually come off the disabled list. The Nats will need to trim down their roster to account for those two, possibly leaving two of the guys quoted above trying to figure out their next move. But on opening day 2012, these guys will be major leaguers, and today, that’s all that matters.