Noll catching on in return to the Nats

It has been a very good return to the Nationals for Jake Noll this week. So far, he has gone 2-for-3 with a pair of singles against Tampa Bay as a pinch-hitter and designated hitter.

Triple-A Fresno manager Randy Knorr, one of the many coaches working with players at the Nats' alternate training site, told manager Davey Martinez that Noll was improving a lot over the past two months on offense and defense. But what really got Martinez's attention was when Knorr spoke about how Noll was stepping forward in Fredericksburg.

"I talked to Randy a lot about him, and he said this kid has really matured a lot and became one of the leaders down there," Martinez said. "But really, he said his at-bats were unbelievable the whole time. Really worked hard on his defense. Played a lot of outfield, first base, second base, third base, even did a little catching stint. We asked him to try out because in an emergency he could be the third catcher. He's had great at-bats. Yesterday, I put him in to pinch-hit, had a great at-bat and missile up the middle of the field, so that was nice to see."

Noll-Walks-White-sidebar.jpgNoll, 26, made the Nats' opening day roster in 2019, but struggled at the plate, hitting .167 in eight games after tearing up the ball in spring training. Martinez says that can happen to any player in his initial elevation to the big leagues.

Heck, it happened to him when he first made it to the show in 1986. In Martinez's first 53 games with the Cubs, he hit .139 and managed just three extra-base hits. But in his second season in 1987, Martinez broke out by slashing .292/.372/.418 and cranking out 134 hits with 18 doubles, eight triples and eight homers over a full season of play.

"Lot of these guys, like myself, you come up to the big leagues for the first time and things don't go well," Martinez said. "But you learn a lot about yourself and you come back a different person. I can see that in some of these guys. Jake being one of them. He's got a little confidence now. He understands who he is, what he needs to do. It's good to watch him and see him. Every time we brought him up with the taxi squad or whatever, I watch these guys and see how they react. Jake goes about his day and does everything he does to prepare, even when he wasn't on the roster. It was kind of nice to see."

So Knorr went to work with Noll. The game plan was set for improving his hitting. The Nats put together dozens of at-bats each day for Noll to hone his skill at the plate.

"Jake's one of those guys where he took it to heart what we wanted him to do and really got better," Martinez said. "I watch him take ground balls all over the field and (he) really, really got a lot better. We worked with his hitting and we told him about staying behind the baseball and not chasing, and I talked to Randy and he said he's swinging at strikes. He's laying off breaking balls. He's done really well. Kudos to him for really going down there and really working hard and getting himself back here."

The Nats admired Noll's ability to play a lot of different spots. With Wilmer Difo back in Fredericksburg, the Nats needed an emergency catcher as well as a valuable infielder. In discussions with the coaches, Martinez approached Noll about his ability to help out behind the plate.

"It was a conversation I had with him at first and asked him if he'd be willing to do it," Martinez said. "For me, if you had a third catcher, it's kind of nice for somebody that can do it. It gives you the option to do different things. He's done it before a little bit, in college. I told him, 'It's not like you're going to get back there and catch, but if something did happen, an emergency happened, if you could do it that's only a plus for you.' It really is (helpful) if you can do something like that because he plays multiple positions, so just adding another position is pretty good."

Martinez keeps a keen eye on his players. He works with them on hitting the ball to the "middle of the field." But he also is watching how each player works before he gets to his at-bat and how he carries himself after the at-bat. Body language, and the attitude the players demonstrate day in and day out are crucial to a successful ballplayer. There is a good chance things won't go swimmingly every single time you come to the plate or line up in the infield on defense. Martinez places much importance on how a player handles adversity. Players like Andrew Stevenson work hard each day. Martinez sees those same qualities in Noll.

"I look into that," Martinez said. "For me, it's maturity. You want guys that stay hungry. When things go bad, they don't fall apart. They bounce right back and they come back. I could talk about Stevenson. That kid is a true professional. Every day he comes in and gets his work in. Never see him pouting. He stays ready. Jake Noll is that guy too. We told them what they needed to do. They went down there, they worked on it, they were really successful down there. So, when they do get an opportunity to come back here and help us and play well."

Martinez said the coaches gave Noll a game plan to get better and he attacked it. Top prospect Jackson Rutledge spoke this week about the one player that gave him the most difficulty at the plate. It was Noll, fouling off pitch after pitch. Right-hander Aaron Barrett said Noll was so competitive with him that every time they faced off, he would playfully tease Barrett that he was going to take him yard the next at-bat.

"When I see those guys come back, for me, I love it because I know the work that they put in," Martinez said. "And it means a lot for him, for myself, for his teammates to see those guys come back. And his teammates when these guys do come back, they are excited because they know they put (in) the time and work. It wasn't easy. You are going down there to Fredericksburg and you really aren't playing games against anybody, but you got to play and you got to stay ready.

"These guys, at any given day, they were getting 15 at-bats a day because of all the pitching we had to have throughout the day. Sometimes there was no fielders and these guys would hit and run the bases as hard as if they were playing a real game. That was awesome to see. We get these videos of those guys and they are coming out of the box like they have just hit a double or they are stretching out a single into a double, and a ground ball that they are trying to not hit into a double play and running hard to first base. To me, that's awesome because there are no fielders."

Barrett talked about the grind of Fredericksburg, what it was like facing the same guys every single day. At least in a regular minor league season, there were new opponents and new challenges each game. But in the new baseball world of 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, every day at the alternate training site can get repetitive. But guys like Noll did not make excuses, just kept working.

"They are going through their day like they are playing a game," Martinez said. "One, it's a testament to Randy and those guys down there to execute what we want them to do and two, the players actually follow the protocol and doing what they are asked to do and having fun doing it."

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