After “worst year of my life,” Eaton itching to return from injury

Injured time is hard time for ballplayers, never more so than injured time that overtakes nearly an entire season and leaves a player watching from the outside as his teammates lose in the postseason. Adam Eaton just experienced all of that in 2017, and it left him determined never to experience it again.

“Oh, it was brutal,” the outfielder said Saturday at Nationals Winterfest. “The worst year of my life, I think it’s safe to say. The longest summer of my life. That’s what I told all of my cousins: If you want to slow down the summer at all like you did when you were 12 years old, come hang out with me. Slow down to a crawl. It was brutal.”

What was supposed to be a breakthrough inaugural season with the Nationals instead was abruptly cut short on April 28, when Eaton tore the ACL and meniscus in his left knee while also suffering a high ankle sprain on a scary play at first base at Nationals Park. Just like that, a promising season came to a screeching halt, leaving Eaton to face a long year of recovery from the violent injury.

He rehabbed throughout the summer and into the fall, was running and hitting in the hope there might be some chance he could return to play late in October if the Nationals advanced deep enough in the playoffs, but that opportunity never came.

So after going full-bore in his rehab for months, Eaton had to shut it down again to begin the offseason, with no reason to ramp things up again until he gets closer to the start of spring training.

Eaton-Writes-in-Pain-Sidebar.jpg“I put my trust in the staff, and they know exactly the timeframe that I need to be ready,” he said. “We’re going really slow, and I’m enjoying it because I can take every day as it is and know that spring training is right around the corner but we’ll be ready for it.”

Eaton has long had his sights on the first day of spring training in mid-February, but new manager Dave Martinez has cautioned his outfielder that the more important goal is to be ready for opening day on March 29.

That’s easier said than done for the 5-foot-8 sparkplug.

“Oh, yeah. Short man syndrome, without a doubt,” Eaton said. “I want to be ready when everyone else is ready, for sure. But again, I just turned 29, so I’m getting a little older. Hopefully, that wisdom of being almost 30 will come into play. It’s definitely a balance. I think he has the right mind frame. But with that being said, I’m going to push it. I want to be out there with the guys as soon as I can, and that’s the plan.”

The Nationals have big plans for Eaton in 2018 after watching him hit .297 with a .393 on-base percentage in 23 games before he got hurt. Martinez has already declared him the club’s leadoff hitter. He’ll also slide over to left field after playing mostly center field this season, with Michael A. Taylor having cemented his place in the middle of the outfield while Jayson Werth heads elsewhere after seven years in D.C.

Given the strong track record of athletes returning from ACL surgery, the Nationals have every reason to believe Eaton will return to be the player he was pre-injury. He passed whatever tests were necessary at season’s end. Now he’ll just need to take the next important steps at spring training.

“I’m going down pretty early, get some extra treatment and some extra focus,” he said. “But everything’s going really well, and I’m pretty happy where I’m at for the offseason with my knee, and really my whole body.”

As tough as the season was for him, Eaton said one potential benefit to all the time off was the opportunity to take care of the rest of his body. He believes he’ll be better off in the long run, health-wise, because of it.

Eaton also believes the time spent watching from the dugout and from afar has helped him pick up on a variety of ways to improve his game.

“I had the chance that you don’t usually have ... just an outside perspective,” he said. “When you’re in the heat of the battle, you have your own agenda, your own viewpoint. It might be different from sitting on the bench or being an outsider looking in. I definitely learned a lot. Numerous things that I’m definitely going to incorporate, on and off the field.”

Ultimately, though, Eaton is most looking forward to the simple act of being on a baseball field again, of going through the daily routines he was deprived of nearly all of this year and perhaps appreciating the little things he never has reason to before.

“I think triples are always awesome,” he said. “It’s funny, I’m taking BP now and I’ll say, ‘Triple,’ when I hit a ball down the line or I hit one in the gap. I think it’s the most exciting play in baseball. I think the first day I hit a triple, there will be a big ol’ smile on my face, because that’s a hell of a long way to run, especially now with the injury.”

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