VIERA, Fla. - Tuesday stood to be an awkward day for new Nationals outfielder Matt den Dekker. Less than 24 hours after the Mets traded him to the Nats, he would be suiting up in Space Coast Stadium to play against his former team.
“It’s a little strange,” admitted den Dekker.
It helped den Dekker to see some familiar faces when he showed up in the Nats clubhouse early yesterday morning. Den Dekker, 27, and Nats outfielder Michael A. Taylor both attended the Winchester Academy and in Fort Lauderdale and played baseball together at the high school.
“He was a freshman when I was a senior,” said den Dekker. “But I know him from there. It’s pretty cool that we’re on the same team. He was actually a lot smaller then. Now he’s grown up a lot, he’s a great player.”
den Dekker would go on to star at the University of Florida before the Mets selected him in the fifth round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft. Before draft day, he teamed up with Nats pitcher Stephen Strasburg.
“We played on Team USA after our freshman year,” he said. “I played with him for a summer. We went over to the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.”
Beyond his connections to his newest teammates, den Dekker has some special memories in D.C., as well.
“I love playing in Washington,” said den Dekker. “I got my first hit in Washington, actually my first home run. I could see the passion from the fans. It’s probably one of my favorite places to play, just to see the excitement from the fans and throughout the game. It was a fun place to go and play games. I’m excited to be part of the team now.”
That’s den Dekker’s only career home run in 210 at-bats in majors to go along with a .238 average.
Meanwhile, the Nats signed 12-year veteran Reed Johnson on Monday, and he brings a career .280 batting average to a depleted Nats outfield that’s unsure of when they’ll have Denard Span (core muscle surgery), Jayson Werth (shoulder surgery) and Nate McLouth (shoulder surgery) back in the lineup.
Johnson and Werth’s path to the majors crossed in the minors when both were Blue Jays farmhands at Double-A Tennesse.
“We go way back,” said Werth. “We played ‘01 in Knoxville in Double-A and were together the next couple years. We were either in Triple-A or the big leagues together for the next two years, too. We were like the only two guys on that team in ‘01 that had dogs. So we’d always figure out something with the dogs - ‘We’ll watch your dog. I’ll watch your dog.’ That sort of deal. We go way back. That was many moons ago. We stay in contact and it’s good to be on the same team again.”
After Werth and Johnson shared a hug and caught up, the newcomer stood in front of his new locker and reflected on his old friend.
“Our families knew each other,” said Johnson. “His son, Jackson, is now 13 years old. Julia (Werth) was pregnant at the time with him when we played together in Double-A. We were taking about how old we are. All the young guys playing. I’m playing with kids who are 20 years old and I’m like, ‘Wait a second, if I was 16 or 17 and had a kid, that could be my kid,’ so I’m playing with guys that technically could be your son. So we’re getting up there.”
Despite being from southern California, Johnson is also a huge Washington Redskins fan. He’s attended several games at FedEx Field, been to Redskins Park for training camp and proudly owns a Sean Taylor jersey.
But Johnson was a bit guarded when asked about his opinion on ever-polarizing Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.
“You have to give him every opportunity you can,” Johnson said of RGIII.