Nats prospects savor first "Spring Breakout" game experience (updated)

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – T.J. White thought this might as well have been a real major league game. Cole Henry was thrilled when Drew Millas successfully got a ball turned into a strike with a formal challenge. Travis Sykora was so amped up, he couldn’t hold a cup of water without spilling it.

The first “Spring Breakout” game in Nationals history this afternoon was unlike anything these prospects had been a part of before. And though they took a 4-2 loss to the Mets’ top prospects in the seven-inning exhibition, that result didn’t diminish the experience.

Every team in the sport is participating in one of these games this week, in this case as an opening act to tonight’s Grapefruit League contest between the Nationals and Mets. Many of the Nats prospects who played today have been in big league camp all spring, so the experience might not have been unique to them. But for a host of younger kids who have been in minor league camp, this was a big deal.

“To me, it kind of felt like playing a real MLB game,” said White, who drove in both of the Nats’ runs with a pair of two-out RBI hits. “It kind of felt like getting my first big league hit, almost. It was just a surreal experience.”

Davey Martinez, who managed this game and will let bench coach Miguel Cairo handle the nightcap, noticed how amped up some of the players were. He put his hand on Sykora’s chest and said it was “going 1,000 mph.”

Some handled the extra adrenaline quite well. Henry, who had been in big league camp to begin the spring, was the pitching star of the game, striking out the side on 17 pitches in the bottom of the second, getting one of his 12 strike calls thanks to the overturned call made possible by Millas’ use of the automated ball-strike (ABS) challenge system installed for this game.

For the 24-year-old right-hander, who is two years removed from thoracic outlet surgery now, this has been a hugely encouraging spring, proving to the organization he’s healthy again and ready to push for his big league debut at some point.

“I just tried to go out there and be confident in myself and my stuff, and just tried to hit Millas in the chest,” Henry said. “That was the main goal today: Just let it flow down the mound pretty easy and leave it all out there. It was only one inning. Just blow it out while we can.”

Sykora, five years younger than Henry, followed him out of the bullpen and had plenty of reason to be excited. The hard-throwing third-round pick of last year’s draft out of Round Rock, Texas, was actually making his professional debut, having been held back last summer to protect his arm.

The 19-year-old retired the side in rapid fashion, throwing only seven pitches. He also benefitted from Millas’ astute use of the ABS challenge system, getting a strike three call on Jett Williams (who he knew from high school).

“It went by quick,” Sykora said. “I’ve never had a professional game, so this was kind of my first one. It wasn’t official, but it was a realistic game, so I had a lot of adrenaline up there. It was cool. It was definitely a moment I won’t forget.”

Less successful was Jarlin Susana, the flamethrowing 19-year-old acquired in the Juan Soto trade who lit up the radar gun with a fastball that consistently reached triple digits and topped out at 103 mph. Alas, Susana also gave up two runs on three hits and a walk, while also striking out two during a 29-pitch inning.

“I’ll tell you what, that’s the first time I’ve really seen him compete. Man, that ball comes out and is on you quick,” Martinez said. “We noticed he gets quick in his delivery. We’ve just got to get him to kind of slow down a little bit, keep it down in the strike zone. But he’s going to be a good one.”

In a lineup featuring some of the highest-ranked prospects in the sport – Dylan Crews, James Wood, Brady House – White seemed like an afterthought as the Nats’ No. 8 hitter and DH. But the fifth-round pick in the 2021 MLB Draft, who struggled last season at Single-A Wilmington, was by far the most successful hitter in this game, driving an RBI double to deep right-center in his first at-bat and adding an RBI single to right in his second at-bat.

White did all this with some admittedly shaky nerves.

“Very high. I’m not going to lie, they were up there,” he said with a laugh. “But I found a way to corral them. At the end of the day, it was just a baseball game.”

A baseball game these kids won’t soon forget.

* The Nationals topped the Mets, 7-3, in tonight’s big league game, earning their sixth consecutive Grapefruit League win in the process.

Lane Thomas led the way at the plate with a three-run homer off New York starter Adrian Houser, his second of the spring. Luis García got things started with an opposite-field solo shot in the top of the first, also his second of the spring.

Trevor Williams got off to a rough start, surrendering a leadoff homer to DJ Stewart and then three more hits during a two-run bottom of the first. But the veteran right-hander, trying to retain the No. 5 spot in the Opening Day rotation, bounced back with four scoreless innings to get through the fifth on 68 pitches.

Matt Barnes delivered another 1-2-3 inning of relief, striking out a pair. The 33-year-old right-hander, a late signee to a minor league deal, has now faced six batters this spring and retired them all.

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