PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Clear on the U.S. mainland for Wilmer Difo is one word: fastball. See it. Hit it.
Difo replaced Anthony Rendon at the top of the Nationals’ lineup Wednesday and went 2-for-3. He swung at the first fastball he saw from Cy Young winner David Price. The hack produced a double down the line. He hit a triple in his next at-bat, showing good speed.
Mastering English and off-speed pitches is more of a chore for the Dominican-born Difo than swinging at fastballs. He smiled and laughed when talking to reporters, relating he was happy to be in big league camp and preferred to play shortstop, though he can also play second base.
Difo, 22, played for Single-A Hagerstown last season and hit .315 with 14 home runs and 90 RBI. He’s likely destined for Double A this season, and, if all goes well, Triple A by the end of the season. He’ll play second and shortstop throughout the summer.
“I just think that he’s well on his way to being a big-leaguer,” Nationals manager Matt Williams said. “It’s early yet for him. Hasn’t even reached Double A yet. He can certainly hit a fastball; that’s where you start. We’ve seen him swing at some bad breaking balls, too. That’s just being young.
“He plays both middle infield positions. Got speed. Runs the bases well. Pretty good package for him. I just think it’s a matter of him getting at-bats.”
Reminded that Difo swung at the first pitch from a four-time all-star, Williams acknowledged that young Difo is not intimidated.
“If somebody throws a fastball in there, he’s going to take a whack at it,” Williams said with a smile. “That’s a good thing. I think he’s adapted really well. We saw him a little bit last spring, but this year he’s adapted really well to being around the guys and not being intimidated.”
Where Difo plays in the future, Williams said, will depend on need and what he continues to show in the field. The middle of the infield may be the most unsettled place when projecting what will happen for the Nationals after this season. Shortstop Ian Desmond is in the last year of his contract. Yunel Escobar was brought in during the offseason to play second base, but has played shortstop most of his big-league career. He’s under contract until 2017.