Tommy John rehab complete, Skole healthy and excited to be back in camp

VIERA, Fla. - It’s a really foggy morning down here in Viera and more rain might be on the way throughout the afternoon, but the Nationals will try and get in a full workout today despite the conditions.

Players were required to report before 7 a.m. today for photo day, in which they move from station to station and have their picture snapped by various outlets as well as team photographers.

The area atop the morning schedule that usually holds Matt Williams’ daily motivational quote lacked such a quote today. It said, simply: “Photo Day, 7 a.m.”

Anything to make sure the guys don’t forget photo day.

I mentioned yesterday that minor league infielder Matt Skole faced a talented group of hurlers - including Sammy Solis, Matt Purke and A.J. Cole - during the first live batting practice sessions of camp.

Skole didn’t really care who he was facing, however. It could have been Stephen Strasburg. It could have been the last pitcher on the roster. He was just happy to be back, feeling healthy and getting a chance to swing the bat.

“Just good to be back in there,” Skole said after yesterday’s workout. “It was good to see live pitching again.”

It was just two games into Double-A Harrisburg’s season last year when Skole, who entered the 2013 season as the Nationals’ No. 4 prospect, according to Baseball America, reached out for a throw at first base and had a baserunner collide with his left arm. The play resulted in a freak injury that left Skole with a small fracture in his left wrist and a torn UCL in his elbow.

The good news, if there was any, was that the injuries were to Skole’s non-throwing arm. The bad news, of course, was that he would need to rehab the heck out of his injuries (the torn UCL required Tommy John surgery) and miss out on valuable playing time.

Skole missed the rest of the 2013 season, but was able to return and participate some in the Arizona Fall League, where he tried to get back up to speed. He hit just .184 in 15 games out in Arizona, but had three homers among his nine hits, put up a strong .375 on-base percentage and slugged .429.

That experience allowed Skole to help shake off the rust a bit, and now he’s back at big league camp for the second straight year trying to return to the form that he showed in the 2012 season, when he hit .291/.426/.559 with 27 homers between low Single-A Hagerstown and high Single-A Potomac, earning him Nationals minor league Player of the Year honors.

“I’ve put (the injury) behind me completely,” Skole said. “I go out there on the field and I don’t even think about it. I don’t think about the surgery, I don’t think about what happened last year. That’s over. Everything that happened then, I got through it, I rehabbed and I got better.

“Now I’m ready to go. I’m 100 percent. And it’s just nice to be out there running around and just playing with everybody again.”

That said, manager Matt Williams said that he still expects Skole to be playing catch-up to some extent early on. Williams sees the potential the 24-year-old Georgia native has, however, and as I noted a few days ago, Williams compared Skole to former Indians slugger Jim Thome, because of the opposite-field power that both men possess.

“I anticipate he will look for his timing early this spring, because he really hasn’t played in a year,” Williams said. “So it’s gonna be tough for him early. But (hitting coach) Rick Schu is working with him now every day. We’ll get his timing back, try to get him a lot of at-bats in spring and get his feet back under him. It’s difficult when you lose that much time. But he’ll be fine. He drives the ball the other way well, he can play both corner positions. So I think he’s got a bright future.”

Skole was drafted in the fifth round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft as a third baseman, but scouts project him more as a first baseman long-term. His locker is down on the end of the clubhouse with the other non-roster invitees in camp, near Brian Goodwin and Michael Taylor, but this being his second time in big league camp, Skole feels more settled now than he did at this time last year.

“I think I feel a little more comfortable, not only with the guys who I’ve played with coming up being here, but also knowing the guys from last year, like (Jayson) Werth and (Ian Desmond) and those guys,” Skole said. “Last year, I kind of came in like a blind bat. I didn’t really know anybody. I kind of just sat around and kept my mouth shut and did my own thing. But now that I know everybody and we have an understanding, we’ve kind of built relationships.

“So I think this year, it’s definitely been a lot easier to settle in and relax then it was last year.”

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