It had been nearly two months since Alex Avila last appeared in a ballgame, nearly two months since the 34-year-old catcher was thrust into emergency second base duties and wound up straining both of his calves in the process. Add a mandatory quarantine period after testing positive for COVID-19, and Avila had been stuck on the sidelines far longer than anyone could’ve imagined at the time.
Today, though, Avila finally was back in uniform in an organized game. Beginning a minor league rehab assignment with the Nationals’ rookie Florida Complex League club, he caught six innings and went 0-for-3 with a strikeout at the plate.
It’s merely the first step in a process for Avila to get his legs back under him, get some playing time and perhaps eventually rejoin the Nats roster (though that could prove to be a complicated situation itself).
“He’ll stay down there for now,” manager Davey Martinez said during his Zoom session with reporters before tonight’s game in New York. “He’s playing some games, getting as many at-bats as he needs. He’s catching. We’ll keep him down there until he feels like he’s ready to go.”
Avila last played July 1 against the Dodgers, a night that will live in infamy for the Nationals. Because both Trea Turner and Jordy Mercer were injured the day before, and because they couldn’t get a healthy minor league infielder to Washington in time, they wound up asking Avila to start at second base for the first time in his career.
The game only went five innings before heavy rain ended the proceedings, and Avila did fine in the field. But he wound up with pain in both of his calves afterward, having needed to run around far more than he had ever been used to as a catcher. The Nats placed him on the 10-day IL with bilateral calf strains, then called up rookie Humberto Arteaga to fill in for one day before acquiring the more experienced Alcides Escobar from the Royals after that.
Avila had begun rehabbing after the All-Star break and was making progress, but then he was one of four players who tested positive for COVID-19 on July 29, so he was required to go into quarantine. And by the time he was cleared to return, he needed to start the rehab process over again.
The Nationals, of course, haven’t needed to push Avila to return any sooner because they’ve now got two young catchers to evaluate in Riley Adams and Tres Barrera, with newly acquired top prospect Keibert Ruiz also waiting in the wings at Triple-A Rochester.
But with rosters expanding (only to 28 this year instead of the traditional 40, though) on Wednesday, it’s possible the team could activate Avila at some point and carry three catchers.
“I think there is a scenario where we carry three,” Martinez said. “We’re just now starting discussions, (general manager Mike Rizzo) and I, about what we’re going to do. We haven’t set anything in stone yet. But, yeah, there is a possibility we keep three catchers.”