It was just after 11 a.m. Friday on the West Coast when Kurt Suzuki got the news. His time with the Oakland A’s, the only professional organization he’d ever known, was over. The Washington Nationals were calling and they had a starting catching job waiting for him.
“I said, ‘Get me on the first flight out; I want to be there as soon as I can to help the team,’” Suzuki recalled Saturday afternoon, after shaking hands and making introductions in the clubhouse with his new teammates.
“I was really looking forward to this opportunity. This is a good situation for me.”
Suzuki settled into his locker in the back corner of the clubhouse, surrounded by other veterans: Jayson Werth’s stall to his right, Adam LaRoche’s to his left. He joined a team in first place, became the steward of the best pitching staff in baseball and altered the Nationals’ catching depth chart, for now and in the future.
“It’s been a whirlwind, for sure,” he said.
Suzuki, who is signed through the 2013 season and will join Wilson Ramos as a top-catching option next spring, didn’t have too much time to think about the changes, though. He’s only batting .218 with one home run and 18 RBI, but he hopes more consistent playing time will help him find his groove as he has a career .254 average. The 28-year-old was slotted into the lineup for Saturday night’s game against the Miami Marlins, hitting seventh and catching right-hander Jordan Zimmermann.
Across the clubhouse, Jesus Flores and Sandy Leon sat at their lockers. Leon was summoned into manager Davey Johnson’s office to get the news that he’d be heading back to the minor leagues, optioned to Triple-A Syracuse for the time being, though he’s sure to return in September.
Flores was left to digest the changes. A day after telling reporters he was “shocked” by the news that the team had acquired a new catcher, Flores and Johnson had a lengthy meeting.
“I had a long conversation with Jesus, and we’re all right,” Johnson said. “We’re good to go. Jesus was playing very well about three years ago. He’s made great strides in coming back, but he’s not quite where I know he can be. That was basically the conversation.
“[Hearing about trades] is just part of the life we lead. Mid-season trades are obviously more difficult than offseason trades. But he’s not going anywhere. His role has changed a little bit. Your role is predicated on performance. The better you play, the bigger the role you get. That’s kind of the way baseball has been played ever since I can remember.”
A starter four seasons ago who lost two years of his career to a shoulder injury, Flores had assumed the starting role since the middle of May after Ramos tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee. But since taking over, Flores’ offense has suffered. He’s hit just .225 in 54 games with only 14 extra-base hits.
“For some reason, I haven’t found consistency hitting,” Flores said. “To be an everyday player, you need to be able to do both things and I feel like that kind of player. For some reason, I haven’t been able to be the kind of player I’ve been in the past right now. I know I feel inside I can do that but it’s kind of that year where you feel great, you feel healthy, you feel positive but things are not working out for you.”
The Nationals also felt they needed a more veteran defensive hand and game-caller to guide their team and their pitching staff toward the playoffs. Enter Suzuki, who stressed that his first order of business was to begin learning the Nationals’ pitchers and focus on how he can keep them thriving.
“That’s the most important thing: to build that relationship with the pitchers,” Suzuki said. “That’s what I take my pride in. It’s going to definitely be a little bit of a work in progress, but I’m going to do everything I can to speed up the process. I think it’ll be OK. The quicker the better, I guess, right?”
“It’s the same language,” Johnson added. “You only have five fingers you’re putting down. It’s generally location. That part of it won’t be too difficult. He’ll get an opportunity, in due time, to see everybody. I saw him already in the tech room looking at films. He’ll be fine.”