Jeimer Candelario was sitting at his locker following Sunday’s game, phone in hand, watching the highlight of one of his defensive gems from the Nationals’ 4-1 win over the Braves, when reporters approached him.
Perhaps caught by surprise, Candelario quickly turned off the phone, as if he didn’t want anyone to know he was watching his own highlight reel. Not that anyone could blame him for wanting to bask in the glow following a spectacular game at third base.
“We knew that going in. We knew he was going to make plays,” said MacKenzie Gore, the pitcher who most directly benefitted from the stellar glove work. “We’re going to play good defense. We did that in the spring, and that’s what we did today. We had double plays. Candy was making plays all around. It was fun to watch.”
After a sloppy Opening Day and a less-than-crisp Game 2 to the season, the Nationals infield was flawless during Sunday’s win. They turned three double plays, including a critical 4-6-3 started by Luis Garcia to escape a sixth-inning jam. They saw Ildemaro Vargas, filling in for CJ Abrams at shortstop for the day, handle his three chances with no problems.
But most of all, they watched Candelario put on a dazzling show throughout the afternoon at third base.
Pick a play. Chances are, Candelario made it during the course of this game.
Charging in to field a slow roller and firing to first for the out? Check.
Lunging to his right to make a backhanded snag of a ball down the line, then firing all the way from foul territory across the diamond to get the batter? Check.
Diving to his left to grab a sharp grounder, then making a perfect throw to first that Dominic Smith could catch without moving a muscle? Check.
“He’s that guy,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He’s ranked up there as one of the best for years. We worked a lot on some agility stuff with him, quicker feet. And right now, it’s paying off. He’s doing well over there.”
Candelario hasn’t necessarily ranked among league leaders in defensive metrics during his career, but he’s probably better than most assume the first time they see the 222-pounder. He finished last season with minus-1 Defensive Run Saved for the Tigers, good for 15th among the 28 major league third basemen who played at least 500 innings at the position.
That’s dramatically better than the defense the Nats got from Maikel Franco (who finished with minus-10 DRS before he was released in August) last year.
Of the plays he made Sunday, Candelario seemed most proud of the backhanded stop, in which he got to Marcell Ozuna’s second-inning chopper down the line and made the long throw to Smith in time for the out.
“We’re working really hard with the coaching staff, doing our early routine and stuff so we can be in the game and just react and make the plays,” he said. “That was a tough ground ball, because it was almost foul. I just caught the ball and threw it.”
Candelario’s eighth-inning snag of Orlando Arcia’s 100-mph grounder to his left might have elicited the biggest roar from the Nationals Park crowd. If nothing else, it gave fans a chance to salute the third baseman for an entire afternoon’s worth of Web Gems.
And it gave Candelario reason to watch himself on his phone afterward.
“When you do good stuff, it just gives you confidence all the time,” he said. “The more that you do it, the more comfortable you become on the baseball field, and the more successful you’re going to be.”