VIERA, Fla. - Spring training can be a tedious, dull experience for major league players.
Many of the drills they're being put through during these weeks leading up to games are ones that they've been doing since middle school. Position players take batting practice and work on defensive fundamentals. Pitchers throw bullpens and practice fielding comebackers.
Gets old after a while. Actually, it gets old after Day 2.
So manager Matt Williams and the Nationals' coaches decided to take a large chunk of today's workout and devote it to something that would not only allow the pitchers to get practice laying down bunts and work on their situational hitting, but also spice things up a bit and allow the players to have some fun in the process.
Enter the appropriately titled "Pitchers' Hitting Game," which is run quite often throughout the year by Nationals rehab pitching coordinator Mark Grater. This drill easily tops the list of most entertaining things I've seen so far this camp.
In this game, two teams of seven to eight pitchers squared off against each other, with games going on out on Field 5 and the main field within Space Coast Stadium. The captains were Doug Fister, Chris Young, Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg, and those four all picked their own teams.
Fister and Young's teams were pitted against each other inside Space Coast Stadium. That's the game I watched, one which was supervised by the always-energetic Grater.
It'll be tough to get across all the rules that were in play here, but I'll do my best to briefly set it all up.
Essentially, the two teams played a nine-inning game against each other, with three outs in each half inning. To get an inning going, each team had to try and get a runner on base, either via a line drive or a grounder through the hole. Fly balls are outs in this game, because coaches don't want pitchers hitting fly balls.
Once a "runner" was on base (they used invisible runners for this game, not real bodies), the pitcher who was up would try and move the runner over, either with a bunt or a ball hit to a good spot. A successful bunt didn't count as an out in this game, encouraging pitchers to get bunts down and make them good ones. If a pitcher put down a successful sac bunt, he stayed in the cage and got to hit again. Runs could be brought in with sacrifice flies or base hits.
On sacrifice flies or plays that would be decided by a fielder's throw, Grater would determine the outcome of the play by trying to hit a bullseye painted on to the padding on the backstop. If he hit the bullseye, the runner was out. If he missed, the guy was safe.
I just did an awful job trying to explain that, I know. But it was a confusing game at first. Trust me.
The two team captains - Fister and Young - were allowed to argue calls, but needed to do so without cursing. If any other player argued with Grater, he was penalized by having to run a lap around the bases.
Gio Gonzalez put this rule to the test about 12 seconds into the game, when his teammate Danny Rosenbaum - the first pitcher to step up to the plate - hit a ball into the hole.
"That's an out," Grater declared.
"What?" Gonzalez shouted.
"That's a lap!" Grater fired back, causing everyone nearby to start laughing.
Gonzalez ended up being sent on four penalty laps overall, including one after he yelled out at Grater, "You know what? That (call) sucked!" As soon as the final word was out of his mouth, Gonzalez took off for first base, not even waiting for Grater to send him on the lap.
Right-hander Taylor Jordan was also assessed a penalty lap after he ripped a double and yelled, "Boom!" towards the Young/Gonzalez team. Trash-talk was not allowed, apparently.
Team Fister led most of the game, but Team Young mounted a late comeback when right-hander Christian Garcia crushed a grand slam out to left-center field in the eighth inning. Grater had declared that home runs were not allowed when he was laying out the rules before the game started, but Jordan was given credit for his solo homer an inning earlier, so Garcia decided to let one rip.
"When I found out we could hit homers, I was like, 'Oh, we're going to make this a home run hitting contest!' " said Garcia, who was a catcher growing up and hit over .400 one year in high school.
Team Young took home an 8-7 win, and as punishment for being on the losing end, Team Fister had to clean up the balls scattered all over the field.
Over on Field 5, Zimmermann's team beat Team Strasburg, with right-hander Daniel Stange hitting an opposite-field homer to lift his team to a win. Team Zimmermann and Team Young are now trying to organize a Gold Medal Game, of sorts, and Williams said he'll have to try and make room for that somewhere in the schedule.
All in all, it seemed like a successful drill. The players enjoyed it, the reporters watching on definitely enjoyed it, and most importantly from a baseball standpoint, the Nats got in some quality practice time.
"It breaks up some of the monotony, some of the everyday stuff," Fister said. "There's things that we have to focus on every day that are very important, and hitting and bunting and moving runners is one of them. For Matt to kind of schedule things like that, that we're able to have a little fun with it, it's gonna stick in our brains a little better. ...
"I know at the end of the day that's what it comes down to is getting bunts down, moving runners, doing things the right way. That's what we're out here for. We'll all be celebrating as long as we do things the right way, and that's the main key."
"It puts a little pressure on yourself," Garcia added. "You want to do good for your team. So it's good to be able to have fun while you're doing it. Because at the end of the day, this is a game. It should be fun."
Here are a few videos from the drill:
Fister lifts a sac fly to left, and his team celebrates when Grater misses the bullseye
Gonzalez flips his bat after a grounder to short. Grater responds, "Shortstop's been playing there a long time."
Fister brings in another run with a sac fly
Team Chris Young clinches victory. Their celebratory chant, for whatever reason, was, "In your face! L'Chaim!"