- - Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Nationals starting center fielder Michael A. Taylor is humble and quiet by nature.

So that leaves it to others to talk about his ability and desire to improve.

“To me he is a premier young player,” Nationals rookie manager Dave Martinez said.

Taylor, who broke into the majors in 2014, covers a lot of ground with his long strides on defense. At the plate, he has shown flashes of brilliance and is one of the few outfielders in the National League with a chance to produce both 20 steals and 20 homers.

He came close last year, hitting 19 homers with 17 steals in 399 at bats. Taylor had a memorable October, hitting the first grand slam in Nationals’ postseason history to help Washington win Game 4 against Chicago in the National League Division Series. He also went deep in Game 5 against the Cubs in the series.

But the first few weeks of this year have been a struggle at the plate for Taylor, 27, which he admits is an annual challenge following spring training in his home state of Florida.

Drafted as a shortstop by the Nationals, Taylor hit just .176 in his first 34 at bats this season with a team-high 12 strikeouts. He hit .219 in March and April last season and wound up hitting .271. In 2016, he batted .183 in the first month and finished with an average of .231.

Taylor has been working with first-year hitting coach Kevin Long, who formerly held that post with the New York Mets.

“We have been messing around a little bit with my stance and pre-pitch (approach) and stuff like that,” Taylor said. “Trying to get to a hitting position, a stronger hitting position a little easier. You leave Florida and you are here and you have to make some adjustments. But it is part of the season.”

Taylor doesn’t use the cold weather as an excuse for his early struggles. The temperature was 45 degrees at Nationals Park for the first pitch Monday night against the Atlanta Braves.

“It is definitely a change,” said Taylor, leaving it at that.

Taylor struck out in the ninth inning with the bases loaded in the 12th inning on Sunday’s 12-inning loss to the Mets.

“It didn’t work out the way he wanted it to,” Martinez said. “He will get more moments like that and he will come through.”

The speedy Taylor almost beat out a bunt single in his first at bat Monday, then had a bloop double in the sixth before striking out in the eighth.

In the past, Taylor has had trouble with sliders down and away from right-handed pitchers. Taylor normally pulls the ball, with a majority of his hits going to center or left field.

“He needs to be in the strike zone,” Martinez said. “I know him and Kevin Long are working on that: staying in the strike zone (with swings). When he gets a pitch that he can hit, he puts a good swing on it. Typically, he’ll hit it hard. He’s working diligently every day to kind of get the ball up where he can hit it. Sometimes it (isn’t) going to work out. But he’s working hard on it and he’s going to get better at it.”

Defense has never been much of a problem, though Taylor has improved on his routes to the ball since he first was promoted to the majors.

Last season, veteran Adam Eaton began the season as the everyday center fielder before he got hurt in late April, with Taylor seeing time in left field when Jayson Werth was out of the lineup.

But the Nationals made it clear in spring training that Taylor would be the center fielder to start the season, with Eaton moving over to left field.

So what were those conversations like with Eaton in the spring?

“We just talked about certain things like positioning and communication,” Taylor said. “Getting used to playing next to each other, trying to be the best outfield we could be out there with Bryce (Harper) and (Brian Goodwin) and whomever is out there.”

The Nationals snapped a five-game losing streak with a 2-0 win Monday over the Braves as Max Scherzer threw a two-hit shutout. It was the longest losing streak for the Nationals since 2016.

“It is not like we were going to go undefeated,” Taylor said. “We are just trying to get on a roll and get everyone going. We have a lot of season left. That is exactly what (Martinez) has been saying. We will win five in a row” at some point.

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