VIERA, Fla. — Zach Walters had spent much of his time in major league camp this spring trying to blend in when he walked past Jayson Werth one morning with neon laces in his sneakers.
As the veteran outfielder approached, Walters, who said his biggest goals this spring are to “just work hard, blend in and kind of be a wallflower,” wondered if Werth was going to chat with him about the game, or anything, really.
“Nice shoelaces, change ‘em,” Walters said that Werth told him.
Walters did what Werth said said, and while he chuckled about it on Sunday afternoon, he understood. The shoelaces, which he described as “blindingly neon green,” didn’t fit with the rest of the persona Walters was going for in camp. “I’ve got a little flare coming from Vegas,” he said with a shrug.
“I don’t need Werth or those older guys, barking down my neck,” he admitted. “So I just work hard, do what I can do and then hopefully progress.”
Walters has been getting a lot of playing time early in camp, either starting at shortstop or taking over for Ian Desmond when the latter’s work is done for the day, and outside of the shoelace chat, the Nationals’ seem to be impressed with the 23-year-old.
“I really like him,” said manager Davey Johnson. “He reminds me of kind of a young Desmond. He’s got a lot of talent. He’s a country boy. Strong like Desmond. Big arm like Desmond. He hasn’t quite figured out just who he is but he’s certainly got a big upside.”
In the fall of 2011, shortly after the Nationals had acquired Walters in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks straight up for veteran right-hander Jason Marquis, Walters was in the Arizona Fall League working on almost every position on the field. Since then, though, he has played primarily shortstop in the minor leagues.
“There’s no shortstop that’s a real shortstop that will tell you he’s something else,” Walters told The Washington Times in 2011. “But I’ve got to show them I can play it all. I have no problem with that. … As long as I get to hit, I don’t have a problem. I’d play catcher if I could.”
To that end, Walters has been working with hitting coach Rick Eckstein on straightening out his stance a little bit. Johnson said he’d “like him to be a little taller and use his strength to drive the ball.” Walters was frustrated that Saturday’s game ended with him standing in the on-deck circle, but late Sunday afternoon, as he sent a bouncer into right field to give the Nationals a 7-6 walk-off victory, he figured “it kind of paid off today.”
“He’s very young,” Johnson said. “He knows about roping steers and all that, but he needs to corral his ability and focus. He’s got a really good upside. I don’t know how he got to Vegas. He’s a country boy.
“He’s a good one. It’s fun to see him go out and get an opportunity to do something and do it good. Rick has got him standing up a little taller instead of spread out and sitting down like he’s riding a bronco. I like his ability.”
As Walters sat at his locker Sunday afternoon, still in full uniform despite the fact that most of his teammates had already showered and were on their way out for the day, he breathed a sigh of relief. He will most likely begin the year at Triple-A Syracuse, where he finished the 2012 season, but he understands the opportunity to make a good impression here in major league camp.
“(Getting the game-winning hit) is a huge monkey off my back to feel like I’ve done something right in front of Davey,” Walters said. “I’ve been calling him ‘The Warden’ because it feels like everywhere I turn when I feel like I’ve taken the wrong step, he is right there with his hawk-eyes on.”
“But,” he added, “I’m just glad we won that one.”