Given chance to start, Nationals' kids excel against Astros' stars

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Davey Martinez filled out a lineup card this morning that had some purpose to it. Not the batting order, that was incidental. But the names he wrote into the three starting outfield slots – Hassell in left, Crews in center, Wood in right – was done for a particular reason.

The Nationals’ top prospects had all already seen playing time through the first three days of the Grapefruit League. Today, though, was an opportunity to let them all start together, facing an accomplished major league pitcher in the Astros’ José Urquidy.

“I want to try to get all those guys in there together,” Martinez said this morning, “let them face a good pitcher and see how they handle it.”

The verdict? They handled it well. Very, very well.

The kids’ imprints were all over the Nats’ 10-3 thrashing of the Astros. Robert Hassell III hit a two-run opposite-field homer. Dylan Crews delivered a two-run hustle double, stole a base and made a diving catch in center field. James Wood singled, walked and scored a run. And Brady House, who entered off the bench, launched his first spring training homer, making this an extremely good day for an organization that has staked its future to this crop of elite prospects.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Crews said. “I feel very comfortable out there seeing Woody and Hassell both on my sides. I have full trust in all those guys. It’s pretty cool to see. Hopefully in the future, we’ll play many more games together.”

That day may not come as soon as fans would like. Shoot, there’s probably a few players inside the clubhouse who wouldn’t mind seeing it as soon as possible. But the way each prospect has performed so far early in camp, it’s not hard to envision what this might look like before long.

“We’ve been saying it: Good things are going to happen,” Martinez said. “We really believe that. We’ve got talented young players that are hungry, that are really starting to understand who they are. I’m trying to give them opportunities to come up here and play a little bit, and they’re all doing really well. I’m excited about the future here. Things are looking bright.”

The contributions today came in all sorts of ways, from displays of power to clutch hitting to aggressive baserunning to highlight-reel defense. And a lot of that came during a seven-run top of the third alone.

Crews was the igniter of that rally, stepping up with the bases loaded and calmly lining a two-run single to left-center. No, wait. Make that a two-run double, because the 2023 first-round pick never slowed down after rounding first and hustled his way into second to a roar from the Nationals dugout.

“He plays the game the right way,” Martinez said. “You saw today, a ball up the middle … double. He comes out of the box, runs hard.”

“It’s kind of just what we’ve been training to do, though,” said Crews, who celebrated his 22nd birthday Monday. “They said it from the start: We’re always thinking two out of the box, no matter what. Whether it’s home-to-second, first-to-third, second-to-home, we’re always thinking in pairs. That’s what I was thinking outside of the box today.”

Two batters later, Hassell put forth a swing similar to the one that produced an opposite-field triple Saturday night. This time, he got a little more air underneath it and watch the ball soar over the left field fence for his first spring training homer.

“It feels great to get a swing off like that,” said the 22-year-old, who had some concerned last season when he slugged a scant .321 in Single-A and Double-A. “But it’s low line drives, and trying to build off that. The guy that’s hitting them on the ground to the right side and really high up in the air on the left side, I’m not trying to be that guy. Just low liners everywhere, and that swing was a low liner. A top of the zone heater like that, I’ve got to get on top of it. That’s what I’ve been working on.”

The final blow came in the seventh, when House walloped a pitch from Joel Kuhnel (a right-hander with 76 games of major league experience) deep to left, nearly clearing the grassy berm where fans sit and bouncing onto the concourse.

Still only 20, having been drafted out of high school in 2021, House is developmentally a step behind Wood, Hassell and even Crews (who dominated the highest level of college baseball the last two seasons). But after a bounceback season following a lost 2022 due to a lower back injury, he’s catching up and reminding the organization he’s not that far away himself.

“This is my first big league spring training,” House said. “But to do it with these guys, I played most of last year with all of these guys. Getting to come here and do big league spring training with them, we’re all learning together and we’re all feeding off each other, that’s the best part.”

“He fits in just fine,” Martinez said. “Obviously we had a little health scare with him, but I think he’s doing well. I know he works out hard every day, keeps himself in good shape. He’s coming. He’s getting better each and every day.”

They’re all fitting in, to be honest. Which isn’t to say any are clearly big league-ready just yet. None has played above Double-A. None has consistently faced major league pitchers or dealt with the daily grind of the highest level the sport has to offer.

But today did provide a tease of what’s to come. Today’s opponents fielded a lineup featuring Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker, Urquidy and more. And it was a Nationals team headlined by three top prospects that dominated the (admittedly exhibition) contest.

It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks for those prospects, but there are moments along the way to pause and appreciate the experience.

“I haven’t stopped thinking about it,” Crews said. “Looking around, you’re seeing All-Stars and big leaguers you’re usually playing with on 'MLB: The Show.' I was being a little kid early in spring training. Now I kind of have to remember I have a job to do. They’re just players, but they’re very special players. It’s pretty cool to be on the same field as all those guys.”

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