Michael Taylor led off and played center field for the Nationals on Opening Day.
That’s a year ahead of schedule, but he’s not complaining.
Taylor stepped in against New York Mets starter Bartolo Colon and produced a two-strike single up the middle for the Nats’ first hit. Unfortunately, only Bryce Harper joined in that column as the Washington lost the opener, 3-1, in front of a sellout crowd at Nationals Park.
The Mets were the opponent when Taylor made his major-league debut, too, but everything was different last year. On Aug. 12, Taylor played right field and batted eighth while Denard Span led off and played center as usual.
You would never know Taylor felt any nerves last summer as he singled and homered, but he said they were less noticeable Monday.
“I definitely was more comfortable out there,” Taylor said Monday after going 1-for-4 and just missing a spectacular grab at the wall on an RBI triple. “The game seemed a little faster last year. Looking in the stands was a different atmosphere, which can kind of change things a little bit.
“But I felt pretty comfortable out there today.”
He should get used it. Playing center and leading off is his probable job description next season. Span’s abdominal injury just forced the Nats’ hand, giving Taylor a jump start. Span is among several key Nats expected to be elsewhere next season, which works out fine.
The 24-year-old Taylor should be ready to assume the full-time job by then.
Even if it turns out he isn’t ready just yet.
Ideally, Taylor would’ve begun the 2015 season in Triple-A, where he has only 12 games to his credit. He could play every day at Syracuse without the pressure of performing for a team widely predicted to win the World Series. Another year of seasoning and a few hundred more at-bats away from the bright lights definitely wouldn’t hurt.
But reality held the trump card in this case, and Nats manager Matt Williams wasn’t hesitant to play Taylor in the opener.
“He’s earned it,” Williams said before the game. “Opening Day is Opening Day, and we are forced because of the injuries to make adjustments. Ordinarily, Denard would be in there. We know that. But Michael can step in and do a fine job and play well. And he’s shown us that all spring.”
The sample size is tiny but tantalizing. Prior to singling and homering in his MLB debut, Taylor established himself as the Nats’ best prospect besides pitcher Lucas Giolito, displaying the five-tool skills that teams crave.
“It’s dynamic,” Williams said, explaining why he believes Taylor is ready. “It’s power to all fields. We’ve seen that. It’s speed — he goes and gets it in center field really well. So, all of those things combined allows him to get in our lineup.”
Taylor wasn’t able to come through again Monday after his first-inning single. But he nearly turned in a web gem in the seventh inning when Travis d’Arnaud sent a drive to the wall. Taylor raced back, jumped and just missed as the ball caromed a couple of inches to his left.
“I thought I had it,” he said. “The ball was carrying pretty well. You’re trying as hard as you can to cover ground and get back there. I went up for the catch and it just went over my glove.”
Balls over his glove are one thing. Being in over his head is another.
Many a fine prospect has struggled after being rushed into service too soon. While Span is out, Taylor will have every opportunity to state his case that the future is now.
He refuses to consider what happens once the Nats’ regular center fielder is healthy. Span, who batted .302 and led the National League with 184 hits last season, was expected to miss one or two months butis well ahead of schedule in rehabbing from abdominal surgery.
“It’s just nice to be on the field,” Taylor said. “I’m not thinking too much about what’s going on with the moves that might be made. It’s just nice being out there.
“I knew it was going happen a couple of days ago,” he said. “I’m kind of just waiting to see what happens. That’s where we’re at.”
In center and atop the order. That’s where he’s at for now — and probably long-term. What transpires in between is the big question.
Span’s health and Taylor’s performance will combine to provide an answer.