WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Carter Kieboom stepped to the plate in the bottom of the second tonight, dug in and stared out at a pitcher who needed no introduction.
Yes, that was Justin Verlander, future Hall of Famer, preparing to deliver a pitch to Kieboom, potential future infielder for the Nationals. The gap in experience was striking: When Verlander made his first career World Series start for the 2006 Tigers, Kieboom had just turned 9.
“I think I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know who was on the mound. Yeah, I know exactly who he is,” Kieboom said. “I have never faced him before. I’d seen him on TV. That’s about it. But when I get in the batter’s box, he’s a pitcher. I look at what he throws and what his tendencies are and what pitches are working for him that night, like I would any other pitcher.”
Perhaps it was that straightforward approach that allowed Kieboom to do what he then proceeded to do against Verlander: hit a towering home run. And then hit another one his next time up.
Yes, that’s a two-homer game for the 21-year-old prospect off the 36-year-old ace, the definitive highlights of the Nationals’ 5-3 exhibition victory over the Astros.
Just add it to the list of impressive moments so far this spring for Kieboom, who may not be in the Nats’ opening day plans but most certainly is in their long-term plans.
“He can hit a fastball, but we already knew that,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He’s young and he’s going to help us. Whether it’s this year or ... he’s going to help us. I like what I see.”
Kieboom had already nearly homered twice Saturday night against the Marlins but was stymied by the wind on one of his blasts. The wind was blowing in with more gusto tonight, but that didn’t stop the top prospect from taking Verlander deep twice.
Home run No. 1 came on the fifth pitch of Kieboom’s first at-bat, with the count 2-2. Verlander tried to blow a high fastball past the kid, but Kieboom went up and got it with authority, sending the ball flying through the teeth of the wind and several feet beyond the left field fence.
When the two met again two innings later, Verlander decided to try to sneak a first-pitch fastball past Kieboom. It didn’t work. The young infielder tattooed that offering to deep left-center, again cutting it through the wind and even farther over the fence than the first one.
“As a hitter, you don’t really guess, but I got to his fast heater up there with two strikes,” he said. “And I sometimes get that feeling that ... they may not think as a hitter that I’m expecting them to throw that again there. And I was fortunate he did throw it again. That’s just kind of one of the situations. It’s baseball. It’s a crazy game, and a lot of stuff can happen. Fortunately, I was able to get both pitches that I liked in both those situations.”
Verlander, who also served up a home run to minor league catcher Taylor Gushue, admitted to reporters afterward the three blasts were hit by “guys I have no idea about.”
He knows about at least one of them now.
“I came back after the second one to the second baseman,” Verlander said, “and was like: ‘OK, I guess he was able to handle the heater a little bit.’ “
Kieboom, who also drew a walk in his third plate appearance, is now 8-for-22 with three doubles, three homers, five walks and only two strikeouts this spring. But this was far from a flawless performance tonight. He had a couple of shaky moments in the field, including one costly error on a grounder to his right.
The Nationals know Kieboom still needs considerable work at second base, which he only began playing late last year. They have no doubt he possesses the skills to play the position well, but they also know it will take some time.
“I talked to him, told him: ‘Hey, you’re OK,’ ” Martinez said. “(Infield coach Tom Bogar) goes and talks to him and he wants to work. Come tomorrow, he’s going to go out there and work on it. But he’s going to be good. Look, we’re asking him to play second base. He played shortstop; he’s really good over there. So this is something new for him, and he’s going to get better at it.”