- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Wilmer Difo was born in the Dominican Republic and speaks only rudimentary English, so as he stood in front of his new locker at Nationals Park on Tuesday afternoon, the words and emotions of his first major league call-up mostly flowed through bullpen catcher Octavio Martinez.

Only once did he speak in English, to describe the moment he told his mother his dream was coming true.

“Crazy,” Difo said, a smile inching across his face.

The 23-year-old was regarded as the top infield prospect in the Washington Nationals’ farm system, a candidate to be the team’s everyday second baseman in a year or two. Instead, Difo’s first taste of the major leagues came early, as he was summoned to Washington before its series opener against the New York Yankees. His first major-league at-bat, and hit, quickly followed, leaving the bubbly infielder smiling at his locker after Washington’s 8-6 walk-off victory.

“Obviously very excited,” Martinez said, translating for Difo. “First hit in the big leagues, that’s always an exciting thing.”

Difo entered Tuesday’s game as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning, hitting in the pitcher’s spot. He promptly ripped a single up the middle for a base hit and sprinted to first base, standing on the bag as the ball was tossed into the dugout for a souvenir. What was he thinking about, in that life-changing moment?

“He says as soon as he got on there he was thinking about stealing second base,” Martinez said. “That’s the only thing.”

Difo filled a spot on the 25-man roster vacated by Jayson Werth, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a left wrist contusion. Initial reactions to his call-up ranged from surprise to shock. Difo began the season at Single-A Potomac and has appeared in only 14 games at the Double-A level. He was viewed as an extremely talented prospect, but a raw one. Even he conceded the call caught him off guard.

“Obviously he was surprised it was so soon, but he felt he was prepared,” Martinez said, translating for Difo before the game. “That’s what he works for, to help out any way he can.”

Difo was the only remaining minor-league infielder on Washington’s 40-man roster and one of only four healthy position players, including catcher Dan Butler. Though it might seem logical to promote an outfielder, such as Matt den Dekker, to fill a position vacated by an outfielder, manager Matt Williams said he values the flexibility an additional infielder will provide. The Nationals have two backup corner outfielders on the bench in Clint Robinson and Tyler Moore, and Difo’s arrival will allow them to use Dan Uggla and Danny Espinosa in a wider variety of roles.

Williams added that he doesn’t believe a stint in Washington will affect Difo’s development.

“I think he’s excited to be here,” Williams said. “He’s already been out on the field for early grounders and early hitting, and he’s working hard. We don’t know exactly what the game’s going to provide for us on any given day, but he’s got a lot of tools. He can do a lot of things for us.”

Difo signed with the Nationals in 2010 and was a little-regarded prospect prior to last season, when he hit .315 at Single-A Hagerstown and led the South Atlantic League with 176 hits. That performance resulted in an invite to big-league spring training, when he impressed Nationals brass with his aggression. Difo hit .318 in 22 spring at-bats with two extra-base hits and four RBI, all while getting acclimated to a big-league environment.

“He feels very comfortable,” Martinez said, translating for Difo. “Obviously he feels like he knows a lot of the guys through spring training which he thinks is very helpful for this opportunity right now. He feels like he’s part of the team already, so that’s helped out a lot. So, he’s definitely feeling comfortable to be here.”

In the meantime, Difo will relish his major-league opportunity, however fleeting it may be. Whether he remains in Washington for one week or several, he will be able to experience the atmosphere of a big-league clubhouse, the roar of a big-league stadium, the challenges of big-league pitching.

“He’s just here to contribute,” Martinez said, translating for Difo. “He feels very confident he can do a good job, but obviously it helped that he did well in spring training. He is just very happy that all the hard work is paying off.”

NOTES: Reliever Casey Janssen said he feels ready to rejoin the Nationals but has been instructed to continue his minor-league rehabilitation assignment at Double-A Harrisburg. He will pitch Wednesday and Friday, then be reevaluated by the team. … Williams said Anthony Rendon has resumed baseball activities in Viera, Florida, and could travel to Washington to work out with the team during its homestand.

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