VIERA, Fla. | Bo Porter’s voice rings out across the field at Space Coast Stadium, cutting through the early morning Florida haze and humidity.
“All right,” Porter hollers. “Man on second, two outs.”
As the Nationals players quickly shift their positions on the base paths based on the various scenarios Porter calls out, the third base coach tosses an imaginary pitch to home plate and another ball is put in play for the runners to react to accordingly.
It’s a scene that has repeated itself countless times during this spring training as the Nationals renew their focus on base running with Porter at the center of the instruction.
“It’s been a focal point of our camp,” Porter said. “We put a lot of emphasis on it. It’s amazing how you get positive results when you put emphasis on something. We explained to the guys early in camp, if you want to find out the identity of a team, just watch the way they run the bases.”
The hope is that the Nationals’ identity will become one defined by aggressiveness on the base paths - one epitomized by players who run hard to first base, insist on going first-to-third on singles and stay alert to advance on balls in the dirt.
They want to be a team whose aggression translates into intimidation in advance scouting reports, a team that forces opposing outfielders to rush their throws in fear.
There has already been evidence this spring that the lectures and the extra drills are working. Last Wednesday, playing a road game against the Astros in Kissimmee, Fla., the Nationals went first-to-third twice in the first inning and both runners scored for an early lead. Monday, in a four-run fourth against St. Louis’ Chris Carpenter, aggressive base running helped Ian Desmond score from first while Laynce Nix dove headfirst into third for a triple.
Last year, base running was not one of the Nationals’ strengths. According to baseball-reference.com, the Nationals only advanced more than one base on a single or more than two bases on a double 36 percent of the time in 2010. That was tied for the third-worst percentage in the major leagues, in front of only Kansas City and Arizona.
The Nationals had a runner on first base reach third or score on a single only 63 times last year. Colorado, one of the best base-running teams in the league, did it 109 times. Overall, the Rockies averaged 0.71 runs per game more than the Nationals. Over the course of 162 games, that’s 115 extra runs.
“You ask a hitter, would you rather hit with a man on third base and one out or first and second with one out?” Porter said. “Anybody would tell you, give me the guy at third base. Early on in camp, I also took it upon myself to give them the breakdown, the percentages of base runners that score from each base given the number of outs and how your chances increase the further you advance. I just laid out the numbers, and that there really got their attention.”
Several players have noted the increased emphasis on base running and examples like last Wednesday only serve to solidify what Porter and the other coaches are trying to instill. Porter called the results so far “astonishing.”
“We’re running the bases great,” said Desmond, who could hit first or second in the Nationals’ lineup this year. “I think the veteran guys are buying into what Skip is selling. … We run the bases hard, and that’s the biggest thing we’ve been doing offensively.
“I said it last year: If we can pay attention to detail, this can be a really good team.”
There should be caution in their optimism, however. There’s not a team in spring training that doesn’t put an emphasis on base running. The trick now will be getting these fundamentals to transfer to the regular season, when the team does not have the benefit of lengthy pregame workouts the way it does during the spring.
“From a camp standpoint,” Porter said, “we told the guys the other day: ‘You guys have done a great job here in spring training. But at the same time, we want to make sure that this is our identity.’
“This will carry on into the season, and this is who we’re going to be.”