VIERA, Fla. — Wilson Ramos was a little scared. He was a little nervous. For all of the things he’s done in his life, all of the things he’s done in baseball, he may have done this more than anything. Still, he felt anxious.
He leaned on the fence at the Nationals’ spring training complex Thursday morning and watched four of the Nationals’ best pitchers throw their first bullpen sessions of the spring. He was merely an observer through the first round. He waited his turn.
When the horn blew, Ramos, wearing his catching gear for the first time since a wet May night that saw his season end writhing in pain behind the plate in Cincinnati, tapped his silver chest protector and stepped in.
“Woah!” pitching coach Steve McCatty bellowed from behind the bullpen mounds. “We’ve got the Tin Man back there.”
Ramos, who later smiled and said McCatty is “crazy,” didn’t hear him. He was focused on Zach Duke, the left-hander throwing to him, and on overcoming his own fears.
“It’s a long time since I’ve been behind the plate,” Ramos said, his smile ever-present as he chatted with reporters. “So I was a little bit scared. But I didn’t feel any pain or sore. I felt excited to be behind the plate again.”
Ramos felt a little weakness in his right knee, the one in which the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus have been repaired, and he was nervous about how his first session squatting, and catching, and putting his knees on the ground would go. He still has a mental hurdle when it comes to blocking balls, but he knows he will have to steel himself and get over it eventually.
“He looked great,” said manager Davey Johnson. “Caught a couple bouncers. I just watched him and the reaction he had when he got through, and he was grinning from ear-to-ear. In talking to him, he said it was just a little bit weaker but no pain. Then he hit really good. Said it didn’t bother him at all swinging the bat. We’re just going to take it easy with him, but he should be fine.”
When Duke threw a few balls that bounced, Ramos fielded them with his glove instead of blocking them with his body the way he normally would’ve.
“I tried to make it easy on him,” Duke said. “Tried to hit the spots as much as possible, try to keep him from having to block too much, but he looked good. He was real quiet, looked good getting down in the squats. I asked him how he felt and he said ‘I’m a little bit weak.’ but he feels like he’s going to be able to go soon.”
“Next time, I think I will block those balls,” Ramos said.
That was perhaps the best thing that came out of Ramos’ first day back. He felt like he could do it again and again.
Ramos said he felt his knee tired somewhat quickly on Thursday, but he expects he’ll catch three or four more days straight. He will only catch one bullpen session per day right now, though, and work back up to catching two and three pitchers each day. Getting strong enough to return to game action will be another checkpoint.
“It was very fun to be back there,” Ramos said. “I was with my guys, working with them. I was (going) crazy to start playing again. Now I put my gear on, and I’m very happy for that. It was great to put it on. Now I feel like I’m on the team again. I’m back.”
He will need more time, more repetitions, before he feels natural behind the plate again but “I think I’m close to feeling that.” He put his progress at about 90 percent but his optimism for how quickly he might get to 100 percent was evident.
“I’ve spent my whole life catching,” he said. “I know how hard they’re throwing, but I’m going crazy to catch (Stephen) Strasburg, Henry (Rodriguez), and see what happens.
“I’m just concentrating on getting my starting position again. That’s what I want. If I think too much, I might not be ready. I just clear my mind, don’t think too much. Just go out there and keep working.”
Ramos found himself going stir-crazy last season. He struggled to watch Nationals games on television, too difficult for him to fathom not being a part of the game each day. He spent almost all winter in D.C. rehabbing, missing his family back home in Venezuela, and just hoping that days like Thursday would go as well as he’d hoped.
His knee wrapped in ice, his workday done, he had no complaints.
“This year, I have to be strong mentally,” he said. “It was a hard year for me, because I came back from my surgery. Hopefully, I will work hard to be behind the plate for opening day.”