Adam Eaton sat at his locker inside the clubhouse at Nationals Park, his left leg wrapped and braced, a set of crutches beside him on the floor, a Capitals cap tugged low over his eyes as he tried not to turn too emotional talking about the injury he suffered Friday night and the long and unfamiliar rehab he now faces.
“I’ve never had an injury like this,” he said. “Never had legit six months ahead of me that’s going to be an absolute test. But just like anything else in my life, I’m going to win another battle and I’m going to take it head-on and work my absolute butt off to get better and be stronger for it.”
The full extent of Eaton’s injuries - and, yes, there are more than one - are now coming into full focus. He suffered not only a “full thickness” tear of the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, but also a meniscus tear and a high ankle sprain, according to Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo.
The ACL tear, which will be repaired via surgery in the coming days, is the most significant injury of the bunch and typically requires six to nine months of rehab, though doctors won’t be able to make a full prognosis until they operate on Eaton and see the damage firsthand.
The possibility of the center fielder returning to play for the Nationals before the end of the current season is “unlikely,” Rizzo admitted, but Eaton refuses to rule it out altogether.
“Heck, no,” he said, his voice perking up. “This is the beauty of athletes and sports. You push yourself to the brink, and I hope everyone says you can’t return, or you can’t do it as quickly as this person or this person. I’m going to work my butt off and give myself the best-case scenario to play. This year would be great. And if that is the case, that means we are playing in October.”
The injuries were sustained as Eaton busted down the line to beat out a grounder to short in the bottom of the ninth of Friday night’s 7-5 loss to the Mets. Lunging to reach first base despite being off-stride, his left leg hit the bag awkwardly and he immediately went tumbling to the ground in agony.
Eaton didn’t know what exactly he had done, but he knew it was bad.
“That’s probably the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life,” he said. “To be honest, I heard it pop, and I thought it was my ankle. It was my ACL; it wasn’t my ankle. I looked down to see if there were any bones. Everything was still there, so I’m fortunate. But, honestly the worst pain of my life. My wife said I was green, because the room was spinning. I immediately felt sick to my stomach.”
So did the Nationals, who immediately sensed they had lost their leadoff man and center fielder for the season, fewer than five months after acquiring him from the White Sox and fewer than four weeks into a season in which he already was establishing himself as a force on the field and a key figure off it.
“He’s a huge, impactful player,” Rizzo said. “He impacts us on both sides of the ball. He’s an energy guy. He’s a leader in the clubhouse. He’s a leader in the community. On the field, he gives you a left-handed bat that balanced our lineup out. He’s high-average, high-on-base, high-energy. One of the best baserunners in the game. And a great defensive player that we’ll be missing from the lineup.
“It’s a time for people to step up and to perform. I think everybody has to play a little bit better to compensate for Adam not being here.”
Atop that list is the man who will get the first opportunity to replace Eaton in center field: Michael A. Taylor. This isn’t the first time the 26-year-old has been given an opportunity like this; he replaced an injured Denard Span in April 2015 and then an injured Ben Revere in April 2016.
Taylor wasn’t able to make the most of the opportunity the previous times; in 245 career major league games he owns a .227 batting average and .279 on-base percentage while striking out in 35 percent of his at-bats. Now he gets a third opportunity to reward the organization’s faith, but only if he can make some obvious adjustments at the plate.
“He needs to take his game to a different level, be more consistent in his play,” Rizzo said. “Because he’s shown flashes of brilliance. But he needs to sustain that good play and the consistency in his game. We know what he brings us every day to the ballpark: an elite center fielder, elite throwing arm, elite speed, ability to steal a base and power. He needs to work on strike zone command and swinging at pitches within the zone. And we’ve seen progress in both of those aspects. When he figures that out, we think he’s going to be a very productive player for us.”
If Taylor isn’t able to make the adjustment, Rizzo insisted the Nationals’ other internal options remain preferable to something from outside the organization.
“Oh, we’re comfortable,” the GM said. “We think that we have the offense to compensate for Adam. We think that we have the personnel, specifically at that position, to compensate for him. It’s one of the greatest depth positions that we have in the entire organization, so we feel good about that.”
The Nationals also fully expect to have Eaton back in 2018, with no lasting negative effects from the injuries. He is under club control through 2021, and as Rizzo put it: “This guy’s in the family for the long-term.”
Until then, Eaton plans to remain in Washington throughout his rehab process, supporting his team in person and not from long distance.
“My job right now is to start getting better, as quickly as I can and as efficiently as I can, being smart but pushing it to the max that I can do,” he said. “Really just trying to be a cheerleader for these guys. It’s going to be a tough season. Every season is tough in some shape or form. But like I said, I have to bring my pompoms in and just be the best teammate that I can and root these guys on, and be there for them as they are for me and try to make the best of the situation.”