TAMPA – James Wood boarded the Nationals’ team bus in West Palm Beach at 6:15 a.m., before the sun rose. He sat through a 3 1/2-hour bus ride across the state of Florida, watching the driver deal with heavy fog, construction and on-and-off traffic before arriving at Steinbrenner Field for the first Grapefruit League game of his career.
Wood, the Nats’ newly anointed top-rated prospect, had all morning to think about it. And he figured he’d have at least five innings to anticipate his insertion into the nationally televised game against the Yankees.
He did not anticipate his time would come during the top of the third, with no advance notice, after a teammate was injured.
When Derek Hill pulled up lame beating out an infield single, Wood suddenly found himself taking over as a pinch-runner and eventually as the Nationals’ center fielder for the final seven innings of this game, which ended a 4-2 Yankees win on Carlos Narvaez’s walk-off homer off Gerardo Carrillo.
“Hey, the best way to do it is just put him in, right?” manager Davey Martinez said. “He looked good. He took some good pitches, worked some good counts, and he moves well. … He’s going to be really good.”
Once he entered the game, Wood had a fairly uneventful afternoon. He went 0-for-2 with a strikeout at the plate, though he did show off his legs going first-to-third on CJ Abrams’ hit-and-run single, then scored on Alex Call’s grounder to second. Martinez also raved about some of the close pitches Wood took.
“The last time I saw a kid understand the strike zone, like that, was (Juan) Soto,” the manager said in the ultimate compliment. “I like him.”
Hill’s injury occurred only a couple hours after Martinez went out of his way to praise the 27-year-old, citing his speed and defense as reasons he could beat out Alex Call and Stone Garrett for the fourth outfielder’s job on the Opening Day roster.
Hill’s chances of making the club may have taken a serious blow. Martinez said he suffered a right hamstring injury as he raced the down the line to leg out his chopped single to third. Hill was limping considerably as he finished the play, continuing well down the first base line. He wound up departing alongside head athletic trainer Paul Lessard, exiting in the right field corner rather than attempt to walk all the way back to the third base dugout.
Hill will undergo an MRI on Thursday in West Palm Beach.
“It’s just a tough break,” Martinez said. “But a testament to him: He plays the game the right way. He plays hard. He’ll be back. We’ll get him right, and hopefully it won’t take that long.”
* Few pitchers would be excited to get the nod to start a game against one of the sport’s most feared lineups, with a 7-hour round trip bus ride included on top of that. Cory Abbott, though, fully embraced his assignment today.
“It’s just a way better energy, a way better focus,” the right-hander said. “When you’re facing the Yankees and a crowd and all the big boys, the MVP … there’s just nothing like it, compared to when you go to the back fields and throw against your own team. I love it. I love the experience. It’s getting you ready for the season, getting ready for that big moment, whenever that may be. The bus ride, I don’t know, I was really thankful I got this trip.”
Abbott made the most of his brief time on the mound, tossing two scoreless innings on 33 pitches, even if it did include several hard-hit balls, the hardest of which was hit right back at him.
Giancarlo Stanton tagged a 112.4-mph line drive up the middle, striking Abbott on the right calf and producing an audible gasp from the crowd. Somehow, Abbott managed to compose himself, track down the ball near the first base line and throw to first in time to retire the imposing Stanton before Martinez and Lessard ran out of the dugout to check on him.
“Oh man, I was thinking, too: Of all the people to get a scouting report on, I should’ve done him. Should’ve,” Abbott said of Stanton. “And I honestly was thinking right before: (Expletive), I don’t know where to throw this ball! I don’t know what the scouting report is. And I was like: You know, I’ve seen him on TV a couple times. Low and away, he’ll hit it hard, but it won’t be a home run hopefully. And sure enough, he didn’t hit a home run, but it was 113 off my leg.”
Abbott appeared in 16 games for the Nationals last season, starting nine times and finishing 0-5 with a 5.25 ERA. Those numbers didn’t tell the entire story, though. Abbott excelled when facing a lineup once, posting a 2.00 ERA and .175 opponents’ batting average in innings 1-3. Those stats ballooned to a 15.00 ERA and .418 opponents’ batting average in innings 4-6.
How does he fix that disturbing trend?
“Focus. I think that’s the biggest thing,” Abbott said. “And knowing that my stuff is good enough to keep throwing it and get outs. Trust the defense. I think I would go off the rails a little bit mentally and get too mechanical. Now it’s just more about attacking and getting ahead. Basically what they’ve been preaching me since the start. … Hopefully, that will carry me into the fifth, sixth, seventh inning if they need me to do that.”
Abbott’s chances of making the Opening Day roster are probably restricted to a long relief role. The more likely scenario would have him beginning the season in Triple-A Rochester’s rotation and waiting for the need to arise.
“Right now, we’re going to lengthen him out, because we know he can do some other things if he’s pitching well,” Martinez said. “But we need seven, eight, nine starters. Probably more than that. We want to make sure he starts some games, gets 4-5 innings in before we leave spring training, then we’ll see where we’re at.”