When the All-Star break arrived and they found themselves without either of their two experienced catchers due to injury, the Nationals elected not to go with a pair of rookies and instead signed 37-year-old René Rivera, who had recently been released by Cleveland.
And then they thrust Rivera right into the lineup for Friday’s second-half opener against the Padres, then again Saturday night. Rivera was back behind the plate Sunday for the resumption of the previous night’s suspended game, but Tres Barrera finally got the call for the regularly scheduled game that afternoon.
And Barrera hasn’t had a break since.
Tonight, the 26-year-old rookie is starting his fourth straight game behind the plate, having already in this short amount of time established himself as the club’s best catching option despite his lack of experience.
“Barrera’s done great,” manager Davey Martinez said this afternoon during his pregame Zoom session with reporters. “He’s handled our pitching staff really, really well. ... This is a kid that worked really hard at Triple-A. We talked a lot at spring training before we left about what he needs to do to get better. He took it to heart, and you’re seeing him now get an opportunity to play, and play well.”
The Nationals’ sixth-round pick in 2016 out of the University of Texas, Barrera has been on the organization’s radar ever since. But he has always been viewed as a strong defensive catcher who would need to prove he could hit in order to make it in the big leagues.
And that’s just what he’s done since his promotion from Rochester earlier this month after Alex Avila (two calf strains) and Yan Gomes (oblique strain) landed on the injured list. In his three starts this homestand, Barrera is 6-for-13 with two doubles and his first career homer.
In nine games with the Nats this season (including one start in early April while Gomes and Avila were on the COVID-19 IL), Barrera is batting .333 (9-for-27) with a .972 OPS. It’s obviously a small sample, but it’s been enough to turn some heads.
“When I came up and got sent down after those first three days, Davey said he really wanted me to work on my offensive game,” Barrera said. “And I really wanted to get better at it, and I’m still trying to get better at it. ... I know that I have a long way to go, but just trying to put good at-bats together, get on base and do whatever I can to help the team.”
The offense has been a bonus, but the Nationals are most pleased with Barrera’s defensive work. He has shown an ability to work with some of the most accomplished pitchers in the sport, including Max Scherzer and Jon Lester.
And that has convinced Martinez to keep starting the rookie, even with a veteran catcher on his current roster as well.
“I am comfortable, because he’s no stranger to us, either,” the manager said. “In spring training, he has caught these guys. He knows these guys. He knows what we’re trying to do. Preferably, I’ve always said this, veteran catchers understand the game. They see the game a little differently. But it’s a learning stage. One day, Tres will be a veteran catcher as well.”
Gomes and Avila, meanwhile, continue to progress in their rehab from injury. Gomes has begun catching and throwing, but he has not been cleared to swing a bat yet. Avila, meanwhile, has not been able to run at game speed yet.