Playing with "hair on fire," Nats are stealing bases at record pace

SAN FRANCISCO – The most surprising thing about the Nationals’ 7-1 loss to the Giants on Wednesday? Nobody on the team stole more than one base during the game.

This wouldn’t normally qualify as any kind of surprise. Except the 2024 Nationals have made such feats on the basepaths so commonplace, it’s suddenly shocking when it doesn’t happen on any particular day.

The season is only two weeks old as of today, so much could still change. But at this early juncture on the baseball calendar, the Nats lead the majors with 25 stolen bases. And they’ve been caught only twice, making for a 93 percent success rate that dwarfs anything they’ve done before.

“They’re playing with their hair on fire,” manager Davey Martinez said. “And I like it.”

This was a point of emphasis from Martinez and his coaches to their players throughout spring training. They knew this lineup’s shortcomings (power) and strengths (young athleticism). Instead of lamenting what they didn’t have, why not take full advantage of what they do have?

“I want these guys to be aggressive,” Martinez said. “It’s just going to be our style of play. Pick up the signs, watch the signs, when you get a good jump, be ready. When we give you the green light, be ready to go.”

The philosophy applies to just about everyone on the team. Of the 15 position players who have been on the roster through 12 games, all but four (catchers Keibert Ruiz and Riley Adams, designated hitter Joey Meneses, veteran outfielder Eddie Rosario) have stolen at least one base. Joey Gallo, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound slugger, has one. So does Jesse Winker, owner of only three steals in 610 big league games prior to this season.

Even No. 3 catcher Drew Millas, called up just for Wednesday’s game, successfully stole second after reaching on a bunt single.

The real notable stars on the bases so far, though, are the young guys with natural speed who aren’t just swiping bags on a daily basis. They’re swiping a bunch of bags in one day.

Four Nationals players already have a three-stolen base game on their resume this season. CJ Abrams did it during opening weekend in Cincinnati. Lane Thomas did it Sunday against the Phillies. Trey Lipscomb did it Monday night against the Giants. And then Jacob Young did it Tuesday night, also against the Giants.

That’s three different players stealing three bases in a game on three consecutive games. It hadn’t happened since 1914, when the long forgotten Indianapolis Hoosiers of the Federal League pulled off a feat that stood for more than 100 years, according to Elias Sports.

“That’s really cool,” Young said. “I think it shows the versatility we have. We can do it all down the lineup and find different ways to win the ballgame.”

Young is making some history of his own. The 24-year-old outfielder debuted in the majors late last season with 13 steals in as many attempts. And since his call-up from Triple-A Rochester last week to replace the injured Victor Robles, he’s gone 4-for-4, making him a perfect 17-for-17 in his big league career.

“I just think a lot of it has to do with G.P. helping us out, letting us know what’s going on, the reads and stuff like that,” Young said. “He’s been a great help, and the communication beforehand, preparing for the pitcher you’re going to see that day.”

“G.P.” of course is Gerardo Parra, legend of the 2019 World Series championship season and instigator of the Baby Shark craze in D.C. He’s also the team’s new first base coach this year, charged not only with coaching the team’s outfielders but also leading all baserunning instruction.

Parra was a good, but not necessarily great, basestealer during his long career. He stole 97 bases, never more than 15 in any one season. But he was a smart baserunner, and that’s something he’s trying to impart on his young charges now.

“Sometimes you have a fast runner. But they don’t have a good jump, they don’t have a good lead,” said Parra, who replaced Eric Young Jr. during the offseason. “It’s different when you’re smart. You know what times you can do it, good moments to steal and how big is the lead, who’s catching, who’s pitching?”

Parra has taught his young players how to study pitcher and catcher tendencies hours before the game is played, then how to read the situation live as it’s happening and react accordingly.

“I think that’s really helped me out a lot, something I didn’t really look at in the minor leagues,” said Lipscomb, who made the leap from Double-A to the majors. “But now that we have the video, you can go in there and look at what the pitcher does, when to go and not to go. I think we’ve picked good counts to run and have been more successful.”

The Nationals aren’t running at will. They aren’t running out of control. They’re being careful to pick their spots. But when they do decide to go for it, they’re all-in.

“We try to be aggressively smart,” Martinez said. “We go through a lot of stuff, and we look at a lot of stuff. We try to give our players a heads-up for what we want to do throughout the game. We’re always thinking about going to the next base, so be ready. At any given moment, be ready. They’ve done really well with it.”

And if they keep this up, they’ll shatter any number of records.

The club record for stolen bases in a season is 127, set last year in conjunction with MLB’s new rules promoting more running. But even that number ranked only 12th in the sport. And their 81 percent success rate ranked 14th.

They’re currently at 93 percent. And if they were to keep up their current pace, they’d finish the season with 338 stolen bases. The last MLB team to top 300 steals? The famed 1985 St. Louis Cardinals of Vince Coleman, Willie McGee and Ozzie Smith. And even that team’s success rate was a mere 77 percent.

“We’re trying to create havoc when we get on bases, but in the right way,” Martinez said. “I love the way they’re playing.”

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