WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. — Matt Wieters’ strength is his faith. Last February, after the catcher was a last-minute free agent signing engineered by agent Scott Boras with the Washington Nationals, he said he believed God wanted him to play in Washington.
He needed all of that faith this winter to live with what happened in Game 5 of last October’s National League Division Series against the Chicago Cubs.
There was a lot that went wrong for the Nationals in that deciding game. It was a team meltdown. But Wieters’ fifth-inning contribution was a big part of it — with two outs and down 5-4 (after blowing a 4-1 lead), letting strike three on Javier Baez from Max Scherzer get by him and then throwing the ball out to left field to try to get Baez at first, allowing Addison Russell to score. If that wasn’t enough, there was the probability that Baez hit Wieters in the side of the helmet with his backswing — meaning the strike should have been called and the ball declared dead.
The Cubs would go on to win 9-8 and advance to the National League Championship Series to face the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Nationals would fail to get beyond the division series for the fourth time in six years. And manager Dusty Baker, who led the team to two NL East division titles, was fired.
That’s a lot of explaining to do, even for God.
“I had to forgive myself,” Wieters said, standing in the Nationals clubhouse at their spring training complex for the first day of pitcher and catcher workouts on Wednesday. “I had to forgive a lot of different things, but it really wasn’t that hard to me. With my faith I’ve been forgiven for so many different things already.
AUDIO: Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon with Thom Loverro
“It’s not how I would have liked for it to end obviously,” he said. “If you’re not doing what the (Houston) Astros did (win the World Series — the Astros just happen to share the their spring training complex with the Nationals), it’s not how you want it to end. But holding on to bad things is never going to help you get to your goal anyway so I moved on from whatever happened in Game Five and was excited about this year. As soon as the last World Series pitch was over I was focused on this year.”
There was a lot to forget about for Wieters.
The former Baltimore Orioles catcher failed to live up to the expectations of the contract Boras shoved down the Nationals’ throat — two years, $20 million — courtesy of Ted Lerner. Wieters batted just .225, with 10 home runs and 52 RBI, in 123 games behind the plate and was sub par defensively.
On Wednesday, the 31-year-old Wieters — who suffered a severe cut to his left wrist at home last November — said his offseason this year should prepare him for a better 2018.
“I don’t ever want to say something like that affects the on-field because I always feel like the mental side, you should always be able to push through,” he said. “I did not have the strength last year that I had before because of the wrist injury and I was excited to get back to a full workout this offseason.
“I feel as good health-wise as I’ve ever felt going into spring training,” said Wieters, who, at 224 pounds, weighs about 14 pounds less than at the end of last season. “I would joke with the Baltimore trainer, I always said, ‘Hey, next season.’ He’d say, ‘This is a joke. Everybody says next season they’ll be in the best shape of your life.’ But really from the eating habits I’ve put into my diet, I do feel better than I have felt before.”
Here’s what also may have helped his focus — his team looking for a replacement. It’s been reported that the Nationals have had trade talks with the Miami Marlins for catcher J.T. Realmuto, though the Marlins’ asking price of Washington’s top prospect Victor Robles may have stopped that deal dead in its tracks.
“I’ve just kept waiting to see where guys sign and who’s going to go where and it just seems like my name’s on the docket more than anything else,” Wieters said. “I wanted to come here in good shape because I felt like it was something that could help my career and help this team. So like I said, I’m going to do everything I can to be the best player I can and let other people decide on the moves I don’t have control over.”
Matt Wieters has learned to accept the things he can’t control. He got a hard reminder about it last fall.
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