VIERA, Fla. - As Wilson Ramos dropped into his crouch and prepared to receive the first pitch thrown by Zach Duke late this morning, Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty hollered at the 25-year-old catcher from behind the pitcher's mound.
"The Tin Man's back!" McCatty shouted, referencing the all-grey gear that Ramos sports behind the plate.
It had been a while since Ramos had tossed on his gear and squatted behind the plate. The last time he did so was May 12, when he tore the ACL and meniscus in his right knee during a game against the Reds.
Today, Ramos was back, with nine months of rehab and grueling work behind him.
"It's a long time since I've been behind the plate, so I was a little bit scared," Ramos said of receiving Duke's throwing session today. "But I didn't feel any pain or (soreness). I feel excited to be behind the plate again. In this bullpen, I feel my knee tired a little quick. But I have to keep working out and try to get my knee more strong for the next bullpen."
It'd be reasonable for any player coming off a torn ACL and meniscus to be a little concerned about his knee going into his first day back on the job. But when you're talking about a catcher, who has to bend, change positions quickly and drop to his knees to block pitches, those concerns are amplified.
"I was a little bit scared to feel something when I squatted for a long time or put my knees to the ground," Ramos said. "But today I put my knees to the floor and didn't feel any pain. I think I will be ready to block (pitches) soon. I think I will be good to catch three or four more bullpens straight."
Manager Davey Johnson watched Ramos' work behind the plate closely, then walked over and had a brief chat with the catcher after Duke's throwing session was done.
"I just watched him and the reaction he had when he got through, and he was grinning from ear-to-ear," Johnson said. "In talking to him, he said it was just a little bit weaker but no pain. Then he hit really good. Said it didn't bother him at all swinging the bat. We're just going to take it easy with him, but he should be fine."
The plan for now is to have Ramos catch one bullpen session again tomorrow, assuming he comes out of today's work just fine. He can then progress to catching multiple sessions in a day. Ramos had two opportunities to block pitches in the dirt today, but he merely scooped them with his glove, opting to follow the doctors' advice and take things slow.
Ramos estimates that he's about 90 percent healthy right now and is closing in on full strength. Asked if he thought today about all the work he put into getting back to this point, Ramos shook his head. He's staying focused on the task at hand.
"I'm just concentrating on getting my starting position again," he said. "That's what I want. If I think too much, I might not be ready. I just clear my mind, don't think too much. Just go out there and keep working.
"Last year, I was crazy just watching the game on TV. This year, I have to be strong mentally. It was a hard year for me, because I came back for my surgery. Hopefully, I will work hard to be behind the plate for opening day."
That might be an unrealistic goal given that manager Davey Johnson has said he plans to have Kurt Suzuki open the regular season as the Nationals' starting catcher. But the key here is that Ramos felt good enough about his first day back behind the plate to even entertain the idea of starting for the Nats opening day. That in itself is a pretty impressive accomplishment.
"Now I feel like I'm on the team again," Ramos said. "I'm back."