- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2014

VIERA, Fla. — Every day late last season, Wilson Ramos walked into the Washington Nationals clubhouse with a huge smile on his face.

Every day, Ramos knew his name would be in the lineup as the Nats’ catcher. The only question was, at what spot in the batting order? A couple of games became a week, then two, then three. Finally, a doubleheader late in the season meant Ramos needed to take a seat. His streak of consecutive starts ended at 23, the most of any catcher in baseball in 2013.

“It helped me a lot, to get confident, to show what I could do,” Ramos said. “I remember after 18 games they wanted me to take one off. I said no, I want to keep going. I’m ready to play.”

When the Nationals acquired then-minor-leaguer Ramos from the Twins in 2010 for relief pitcher Matt Capps, they envisioned him one day becoming a crucial part of their lineup. Now 26, Ramos goes into the 2014 season ready to be exactly that.

The 23-game streak of starts helped him mentally as much as physically. After a serious knee injury and two bouts with a hamstring injury, Ramos was able to show exactly what he could do as a catcher and as a hitter.

“When you go through injuries like that, there’s a process I’ve seen just from observing people that you have to prove it to yourself, that you’re over that hurdle,” said Nats reliever Tyler Clippard. “That was kind of the stretch where he was, yeah, I can do this. It was fun to watch.”


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Added reliever Drew Storen, “It was unbelievable to see him come back and catch that many games. You could tell, too, it was an even-keel 23 games. It wasn’t like he was dragging himself out there just for the sake of it. For him to come back healthy like that, to play that many days in a row and be the buffalo he is, it was beyond impressive.”

Ramos offered a tease of his ability in 2011 when he hit 15 home runs in 113 games. What is expected of him this season was expected in 2012. But he severely injured his knee in Cincinnati on May 12 and missed the rest of the season. Last season, a short stint on the DL with a hamstring issue was followed by a longer stint for the problem.

Yes, Ramos said, he wondered if he was destined to be troubled by injuries his entire career.

“Some days, I did think about that. I say to myself, ‘What’s wrong with me?’” Ramos said. “That happens in baseball. You have to be strong mentally, try to turn that page and keep working. That’s what I did. A lot of times, it was hard but I kept working hard and right now it feels good. I’m ready to play all year.”

Given continued health and based on what he did in the second half in 2013, it could be quite a year. After returning from the second hamstring injury, Ramos played 64 games. He hit 14 home runs, drove in 53 runs and had a .276 batting average.

“A healthy Wilson means a stronger lineup for us,” Nats pitcher Gio Gonzalez said. “He’s fun to watch, the type of guy who when he comes up, everybody goes to the top step of the dugout.”

Matt Williams, the Nats’ first-year manager, has been impressed by Ramos‘ approach at the plate. Ramos, he noted, is more than just a slugger.

“I just see a guy that understands how to hit,” Williams said. “He has power. He also understands how to drive a run in. There’s an art to that. He has the innate ability to bounce that ball back through the middle. That’s how your RBI totals go way up.

“He’s one of the main cogs to this team in that he’s going to be a guy presented with a lot of situations to drive those runs in.”

All the talk about Ramos‘ offense obscures his defensive ability. He’s far from the finished product behind the plate, but already an above-average catcher with room to grow. Nats pitchers are comfortable throwing to him and trust his judgment. They also like that the 6-foot, 235-pounder presents a very big target.

“Great hands,” Gonzalez said. “His hands are like catcher’s mitts themselves. He takes every chance he gets to work at it and make himself better.”

Said Williams, “It is not easy for him to move around back there because he’s so big. But he takes pride in it, takes pride in his throwing ability and game calling. It’s important to him. You pull all those things together and he’s a really good player.”

As much as he’d like to catch every game, Ramos knows that isn’t possible. His goal is to play about 130 games, push the 500 at-bat mark and see what happens.

“When I get to play every day, I feel comfortable. I feel consistent,” Ramos said. “My body feels good now. I know I can do a lot of things. I know I can do more than what I did last three years. We just have to see what happens.”

The Nats are just as eager to see what happens. They know they need Ramos in the lineup, not in the training room. That’s why they’ve instituted an unwritten rule for him. Both hamstring injuries happened while he was running the bases.

“He’s the one guy that we’re like, you’ve got a free pass not to run 100 percent on a ground ball,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “When he hits a ground ball, you’ll see the whole dugout screaming at him to slow down.

“It just crushes him when he can’t be out there and play. He wants to be out there and we really need him out there.”

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