When you’re young, gifted and blocked, progress is measured in baby steps, often escaping notice. There are signposts that a historian will laugh at in retrospect, moments that eventually mean nothing in the arc of a career.
But they matter when the journey has just begun and you’re unable to run free.
Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos reached one of those seemingly insignificant points during the current homestand. After starting Monday’s series finale at Pittsburgh and Tuesday’s series opener against the New York Mets, Ramos came to Nationals Park on Wednesday and received a pleasant surprise.
He was in the lineup.
“It’s the first time for three days in a row,” said the 23-year-old rookie, sitting in the clubhouse while watching the Braves-Padres game.
Such is life when you’re one of baseball’s best prospects, sharing time with an all-time great at your position. Minnesota traded Ramos last summer because he was stuck behind Joe Mauer. There’s no long-term impediment in Washington, but Pudge Rodriguez is a future Hall of Famer who isn’t ready to quit.
Rodriguez’s presence creates a delicate situation for Ramos - who as a child idolized Pudge - and for manager Jim Riggleman, who believes Rodriguez still has a lot to offer.
But last season’s All-Star break wasn’t kind to Rodriguez, who’s delivering everywhere except at the plate. He’s batting just .225 since then, with on-base and slugging percentages at .253 and .303, respectively. Though he’s fourth on the team this season with eight RBI (tied with Ian Desmond), Rodriguez’s limp bat is unaffordable to a team that lacks punch.
Ryan Zimmerman’s absence, and the slow start by middle-of-the-order hitters Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche and Michael Morse, accentuates the need for more pop. Ramos has done his part, leading Nats regulars in batting (.375) and slugging percentage (.563), while trailing only Zimmerman in on-base percentage (.486).
Ramos also leads the team in multi-hit games and blasted a pair of homers Tuesday that helped lead to his third consecutive start the next night. He said he would’ve been disappointed in returning to the bench after that performance.
“When you play a couple of days in a row you feel more comfortable at the plate,” he said. “It’s not easy to play one day, then sit the other day, then the next day play again.”
Riggleman said Ramos will begin playing “three days in a row and even more,” and would’ve done so earlier if not for Rodriguez.
“Pudge has been contributing a lot,” he said. “He’s gotten some big hits for us, and he’s doing his thing behind the plate. We certainly can’t ignore what Pudge is doing for us, but everybody knows that Ramos is our future. To best utilize what he has to offer the ballclub, we have to get him in there more.”
Riggleman insists that the situation is comfortable for both parties, with Rodriguez tutoring Ramos nonstop and being his biggest supporter. “Pudge is working from the standpoint of ‘I’m going help this kid be a really good player.’ He’s the first one to tell you Ramos has a chance to be really special.”
Unfortunately, Ramos’ consecutive-start streak ended Thursday despite him going 5-for-11 with two homers and four RBI in the previous three games. Not that offense is his primary concern, though; he’s more interested in mastering what he considers the biggest part of the job: handling his pitching staff and learning the tendencies of more than 200 batters.
But it’s easier to grow at all aspects of the game - calling pitches, playing defense and stroking line drives - when you’re on the field. The less time he spends on the bench, the better for him and the Nats.
“I don’t feel bad right now because we both play,” Ramos said of himself and his mentor. “I know I’m young and I will get more chances to play every day. But if the manager gives me the chance, I will be ready to play every day, catch every day and help my team.”
That’s an offer Riggleman shouldn’t refuse, considering the Nats’ need for any help available.
Ramos has the potential to advance in leaps and bounds, but we won’t know for certain until he’s given more room to play.
Enough with the baby steps.