PHILADELPHIA - Of the five guys the Nationals called up from Triple-A Syracuse today, four have been here before.
Outfielders Jeff Kobernus, Corey Brown and Eury Perez, and left-hander Xavier Cedeno have seen a major league clubhouse in the past, donned a Nationals jersey and stepped foot on a big league field.
Up until today, Zach Walters had not. After getting his first big league call-up, Walters strolled into the visiting clubhouse this afternoon with bags slung over each shoulder, sweat pouring down his forehead and a smile on his face. He shook hands with his new teammates, most of whom he knew from being in big league spring training, briefly met with manager Davey Johnson and chatted with reporters about his emotions on being a major leaguer.
“It’s humbling,” said Walters, a native of Cheyenne, Wyo., who the Nationals acquired in the July 2011 in the Jason Marquis deal with the Diamondbacks. “I’m just a kid from a small town. I worked hard, but to be here, it’s part of a dream come true. I know I’m sure you guys have heard ‘Dream come true,’ but I always dreamed of winning a World Series, so I think this is an amazing opportunity I have.”
Walters had gotten indications in recent days that he would be getting a call-up to the big leagues, but he didn’t find out for sure until yesterday, when Syracuse manager Tony Beasley gave him the good news.
“He just told me, ‘I need you in my office,’ ” Walters recalled. “I said, ‘Am I in trouble?’ He’s like, ‘No.’ So that’s when I had a good idea. But I was happy. I was overwhelmed. I threw a big man-hug on him and same thing with our hitting coach.”
If you haven’t seen, heard or read any interviews with Walters in the past, the 23-year-old infielder is a one-liner machine.
Asked how he thinks Johnson is going to use him up here in the majors, Walters delivered this gem: “We talked about Powerade mixes. Blue Powerade mixes. Guys like the seeds in alphabetical order. I think the scrubbing bubbles are somewhere around the corner.”
And on his changed batting stance, which has him standing more upright: “Bambi on ice out there.”
You could look at the numbers put up by Walters at Triple-A Syracuse this season one of two ways.
You can choose to focus on the 29 home runs, tied for the most in Triple-A, and the 66 extra-base hits, most of any player at that level, and say that Walters is evolving into a dangerous power-hitting infielder. Or you can place greater emphasis on Walters’ 134 strikeouts to just 20 walks, his lowly .286 on-base percentage and his 38 errors in 138 games and say he has a ways to go.
The Nationals lean more towards the former, and were really pleased with the strides Walters made this season. Back in spring, Johnson told Walters he wanted him to focus more on driving the ball and hitting for power, and that’s what Walters did.
“I didn’t feel like I’d ever thought about hitting for power,” Walters said. “Just put the ball in play, run around, throw the ball. That’s all I ever thought about. But Davey says something, you better do it twice.”
It took some time for Walters to adjust to the approach the Nats now wanted him to take, and he got off to a slow start at Syracuse. But after the second game of a four-game set at Norfolk in early May, Walters met with Syracuse hitting coach Troy Gingrich to discuss some adjustments that got Walters on track.
“I was like 0-for-something, 0-for-the-century, it felt like,” Walters said. “So I sat down with Troy, I was like, ‘Troy, I need to do something that works. Something that makes me happy but incorporates what we built up at the end of spring training.’ And from that point on, it kind of snowballed. I felt happy, they were happy with what I was doing, and there was a night and day difference after that. I’m sure you guys know, I struck out a lot. But to hit with power, I had to give up something.”
Walters doesn’t have a real powerful frame at a lean 6-foot-2 and 220 lbs., but Johnson saw something in him in spring that led him to believe he could become a prolific extra-base hit type of guy. Johnson even compared Walters to another infielder with raw power and a propensity to commit errors in bunches as a minor leaguer - Ian Desmond.
“First of all, (Walters) was real spread out both sides and just used his upper body,” Johnson said. “And he hit the ball very hard that way, but I just told him, ‘Get a little more upright and a little more normal batting stroke, a normal stride and stay on top of the ball.’ He’s a very smart man. He took to it right away. I remember telling Mike Rizzo this spring, ‘A guy to watch this spring is Zach Walters. He’s going to have a heck of a year.’ And he carried that same approach. ...
“He’s got a really good future. I know they were concerned about him making some errors, but I like his hands. I think he’s got a great future.”
Walters and the rest of today’s call-ups probably won’t get much playing time for now, but should the Nats continue to fade in the next couple weeks, that could change.
“If we continue to play like we have three of the last four, they’ll be getting a lot of playing time,” Johnson said. “But I don’t expect that to happen. I expect us to play better and make this a pennant race.”