On Walters’ strong start to spring and how his game needs to evolve

VIERA, Fla. - Today marks the one road trip this spring when the Nationals will make the drive across the state to the west coast of Florida.

There are some gorgeous spring facilities on that side of the Sunshine State. The Red Sox have a nice new stadium in Fort Myers. The Orioles’ facility in Sarasota is snazzy. We made the trip to Clearwater last year when the Nats played the Phillies, and that was a beautiful park in a beautiful location.

The problem with all of these road games? The commute. Driving three hours (and often more) each way for a meaningless spring training game isn’t exactly ideal, either for ballplayers on the team bus or beat writers making the early-morning drive in their rental cars.

That odometer will be doing some spinning today as we head to and from Tampa for a game against the Yankees, that’s for sure.

Not surprisingly, the Nats’ travel roster for this long road trip features very few regulars. Denard Span is the only guy in today’s starting lineup who finished the 2013 as an everyday player, and Span lives in Tampa, so he probably requested to be on the trip so that he could stay the night and be with his family.

Ross Detwiler gets the start for the Nats today, marking his first game action of 2014. One guy playing behind him today will be Zach Walters, who has turned heads early on in camp by doing pretty much everything the Nats could have asked of him.

Walters has hit from both sides of the plate, going 5-for-5 this spring with two doubles, a triple, a walk and two RBIs. And he’s flashed the leather on the defensive side, making a few impressive plays, including yesterday’s diving stop in the hole at shortstop, followed by a strong throw across the diamond.

Walters’ name wasn’t discussed much coming into spring because with Danny Espinosa seemingly healthy and Jamey Carroll and others in camp, the chances of Walters cracking the opening day roster are very, very slim. Talent evaluators within the organization feel the 24-year-old Walters still could use some more seasoning in the minors, but he’s performed well early this spring, impressing hitting coach Rick Schu and manager Matt Williams. Not that Walters is getting too caught up on spring success, or anything.

“You know, I heard a pretty good player say this before, I don’t know if you know him, (his name is) Derek Jeter,” Walters said. “He said, ‘If you don’t get hits, it’s timing. If you do, say you’ve been working hard.’ That’s just how it is. It’s good, though. You see the guys set the tone and younger guys coming in. It’s just fun winning.”

Last year around this time, then-manager Davey Johnson told Walters he wanted to see him hit for more power. Walters responded with a 29-homer season at Triple-A Syracuse, but he batted just .253 and got on base at a lowly .286 clip.

“(I) kind of ran with (Davey’s advice) last year,” Walters said. “That was my main focus. Now I’ve got Matt, who’s got a different dynamic that, I’ve heard him talking about hitting for average, being a little more simple, playing the game more simple. And that’s something I’m trying to focus on.”

Walters has known Williams for a handful of years now; back at the University of San Diego, Walters was teammates with Williams’ son Jake. Matt Williams, who was then affiliated with the Diamondbacks organization, would come watch games, and Walters has heard a rumor that it was the Williams family who convinced the D-backs to draft him.

Finding a balance between hitting for power and hitting for average is part of the maturation process Walters needs to go through, and Williams has some advice for him on how to get there. But there are other areas that Walters knows that he has to improve this spring and beyond.

“Defense,” he said. “You guys all know, every guy can sit there and read stats and see I made a bunch of errors last year. That was a consequence of focusing on hitting. I gave up a part to gain a part. But (Williams) goes, ‘What do you think about when you’re playing defense?’ ‘Offense.’ He said, ‘I just want to see you extend yourself in that area, make the routine play, start being a consistent fielder. So I took that to heart. Like Davey, now it’s Matt. Anyone that tells me something.”

Walters made 31 errors at shortstop last season and seven more at third base. He’s been getting tons of grounders hit his way in drills this spring (“You’ve got early work, you’ve got in-between work, then you’ve got ground balls, then you’ve got late work. I’m like, ‘How many different works are there?’ ” Walters joked), and will need to keep making strikes in that area.

For now, though, even though it’s still incredibly early in spring, he’s turning heads with his play on both sides of the ball.

Here’s today’s quote of the day, written atop the morning schedule sheet: “Win the first inning and keep that momentum.”

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