PHOENIX - As he sat around his house in Charlotte, N.C., all winter - and well into the spring, for that matter - Mark Reynolds battled conflicting emotions.
There certainly was a relaxing element to all this, with an opportunity to coach his kids, play golf and enjoy an actual spring break for the first time “since I probably was, like, 8,” he said. And yet there was an obvious void for the 34-year-old, who had missed all those previous spring breaks because he was in Arizona or Florida preparing for an upcoming season and now couldn’t understand why he wasn’t preparing for another.
Reynolds had, after all, just clubbed 30 homers and driven in 97 runs for the Rockies. Sure, he still had his defensive liabilities, and he continued to strike out at rates that rivaled anyone else in the majors. But he truly believed he was good enough to deserve a big league contract offer that for some reason wasn’t being offered.
So when the Nationals finally came calling in mid-April, well after the season was underway, offering only a minor league deal and a chance to prepare himself just in case a need arose at some point, Reynolds decided to swallow his pride and give it a shot.
“I took this offer because, number one, really good team,” he said. “Number two, I thought if I didn’t at least try, I probably would never try again. I didn’t want to be 45 and look back and say: ‘Dang, I could have played a couple more years.’ I had to give it a shot.”
So it was that Reynolds found himself on the back fields in West Palm Beach for a couple weeks, participating in the Nationals’ extended spring training with injured and rehabbing players young and old. And then he found himself in the cold of Syracuse, playing at Triple-A, incredibly for the first time in his life, until the Nats called Friday and said Ryan Zimmerman (his old teammate at the University of Virginia) was going on the disabled list with an oblique strain and Reynolds was needed in Phoenix in time for Saturday afternoon’s game.
“Had some lucky breaks,” he said. “You hate to see injuries, but guys got hurt. I was in the right spot at the right time and able to contribute.”
And so it was that Reynolds found himself in the Nationals’ lineup tonight on national TV, starting at first base and batting fifth in his old haunting grounds at Chase Field, singling to left field in his first at-bat, homering to left in his third at-bat and then delivering the biggest blow of all: a two-run homer off Diamondbacks bullpen ace Archie Bradley in the top of the eighth that propelled the Nats to a 6-4 victory and a four-game sweep of the club that held the best record in the National League at the start of the day.
“You obviously know the power’s there, and he’s a great player,” said Trea Turner, who along with Bryce Harper also homered for the Nationals. “But having him come here, not play yesterday, and get a first start for us and do that is huge. It’s unbelievable. And we needed it.”
The Nationals needed it because they blew a 4-1 lead in the bottom of the seventh when Brandon Kintzler allowed three runs on four hits. What looked like a demoralizing moment for a team wrapping up a long West Coast trip, though, immediately turned uplifting again when Reynolds stepped to the plate with one out and one on in the top of the eighth and proceeded to crush Bradley’s 3-2, 96-mph fastball into the bleachers in deep left-center, a 415-foot blast that left the crowd of 31,906 silent and the visitors’ dugout roaring with approval.
“He’s a veteran guy,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He knows. He’s been there. I saw him play for a lot of years, and he gives you a good at-bat. I wanted to get him in today, and he did great.”
Though he only stepped foot into the Nationals’ clubhouse for the first time Saturday, Reynolds admitted he felt a comfort level not typical for a new player with a new team. All around the room, though, he saw guys he had played with before. Zimmerman from UVA and youth fields in Virginia Beach. Kintzler from the Brewers in 2014. Matt Wieters from the Orioles in 2011-12. Max Scherzer and bench coach Chip Hale from the Diamondbacks in the late 2000s.
So when those guys all congratulated him after he crossed the plate following perhaps the biggest hit in a player’s debut game in Nats history, Reynolds couldn’t help but think back to that long and strange winter and spring at home in Charlotte, and be grateful that he indeed decided to give this thing another shot.
“It was cool,” he said. “I know a lot of these guys here. Back in the big leagues again, doing what I did for a long time.”