Sunday, February 24, 2008

On The Outfield Bubble

If you read all the press clippings and media reports you are well aware of the fact that Our Washington Nationals outfield has been declared basically set. Austin Kearns is the returning right fielder. Wily Mo Pena is set in left and the newly acquired Lastings Milledge in centerfield. If Elijah Dukes becomes the fourth outfielder off the bench--that leaves only one other spot left to fill. There are at least seven different players whom have various degrees of possibilities in landing that job. As Alex Escobar mentioned a few days ago--he considers himself a contender--not only for a bench job but a starting role. Our New Number 6 is not giving up on his well known talents. And, Neither are Ryan Langerhans, Justin Maxwell and non-roster invitee Jason Dubois. They may be on the bubble, but each feels they can make a difference with Our Washington Nationals. Here are my chats with all three from Viera, Florida.

Acquired from The Atlanta Braves (The Oakland A's--actually) early in the 2007 Season, Ryan Langerhans showed he is a quality Major League Outfielder. As well as he performed in the field though--he suffered mightily at the plate. A season long batting slump left Langerhans nearly on the outside--looking in. But, he accepted a minor league assignment from Washington after clearing waivers last season and re-signed in a effort to make his game right, once again.

With the off season acquisitions by The Nationals—you are sort of on the bubble when it comes to making this team, your thoughts? (SBF)

“I need to have a good camp and make the team, simple as that—help us win in anyway that I can—in whatever role that might be.”

Fielding wise—I have always said you are quite excellent—but your hitting game has suffered. What do you need to do in order to turn things around?

“Last year, I got myself in such a big hole early over in Atlanta. Then, I came over here and started to swing the bat a little better. But, I was just trying so hard—it was like trying to get three hits during every single At-Bat. Unfortunately, I was never able to get into any groove. Many times, I was hitting off my front foot. This past off season—I worked with Bob Boone in order to make some adjustments. We talked about letting the ball go deeper (into the strike zone), trusting myself--believing again in myself. The type of player I was my first few seasons in the Majors with The Braves. So, I just want to come in here and be myself again—have fun playing baseball.”

Realizing its very early—are you seeing any changes in your hitting? (SBF)

“Yes, I have been swinging the bat a lot better. I felt like I had a great winter of work and have been getting some pretty good result here (in camp) in the first few days. Certainly, its tough to gauge too much off the first few days of BP (Batting Practice)—because everyone is going to look pretty good off the coaches (both of us laughing), but I feel pretty confident in what I am doing.”

Everybody wants to start---you wouldn’t call yourself a ballplayer otherwise. But, this is a drastically changed and some would say—loaded with power outfield. Where do you see yourself fitting in? (SBF)

“Honestly, I feel like I can be that starting guy. But, we do have a lot of good ballplayers and only three slots—only three guys can be out there at any time. So, I need to show them (Manny Acta & Jim Bowden) that I can help this team win. If that means earning a staring spot, if it means being a fourth or fifth guy off the bench—then so be it. It’s a great group of guys and I really want to be a part of it—win and get to where every team wants to be (The World Series).”

Every team needs good defensive players—skills which you have. How different is playing for Washington as compared to Atlanta? (SBF)

“There are similarities and differences. Over there (Atlanta) when I first got called up---we were already expected to win every year. Here (in Washington), we are building something—but at the same time—have the chance to win. Last year, we out performed everyone’s expectations. Manny has talked about last year, being last year, and its time to move forward. We need to start fast out of the gate. No one is going to go 162-0 (you got that brother—SBF—Langerhans chuckling). But, you can certainly come to the yard with the mindset that you are going to win.”

Then, you are looking forward to the New Stadium. (SBF)

“I am. I had the opportunity to take a tour this past September. But, I am looking forward to seeing the completed ballpark, see the Clubhouse and all the little things that we did not enjoy at RFK Stadium.”

Former University of Maryland Star Justin Maxwell has always had the talent. Skills which continually have been set back due to injury. Time after time, this all around young performer found his health setting his Professional Baseball Career back. At least until 2007. Justin broke out at Single A Potomac and finally showed the Speed, Power and Skills of a Major League Talent. He was justly awarded with a promotion to The Big Leagues. A Reward he used to his best advantage. No, Justin Maxwell was not overmatched in The Major League. During September of 2007, he was one of the most impressive players on the field for Our Washington Nationals. Still young, at 24, he's back for more--and not wanting to accept a Minor League spot. Justin and I have spoken a handful of times previously. I have watched him closely. So, he was more than happy to speak with me for this chat.

“You have got to be thrilled by what happened in your career last season? (SBF)

“Without a doubt, it was a blast to play in The Major Leagues. Now, I really hope to stay and I am working hard to do it.”

I was a Shea Stadium that last week in September (2007) when you hit that Home Run. Your Mom, sitting just to my right—was excited. (SBF)

She has actually calmed down a little bit. During my Minor League Games she was usually the loudest person in the crowd. But, it’s a joy to not only have her—but my father at the games, as well.”

Many have said you have the talents to be a successful Big League Player, only injury has held you back—where do you go from here? Out of nowhere, the outfield competition for The Nationals is pretty tough? (SBF)

“Yes, it is. But, that’s always the case when you are moving up. I have to keep my eye on the prize (The Majors), work hard and don’t ever give up. I give my all every day. Really, I keep my eye on my dream. I can’t worry about others. If I did that—I will not be able to concentrate on that goal.”

So, where does that leave you right now? (SBF)

“My goal is to make the team. That is my number one priority, and then go on from there. But, that is the main thing on my mind—right now.”

What did you learn hitting on The Major League Level—that was not necessarily possible in The Minors? (SBF)

“I found out that a lot of guys can throw any pitch, during any count. Coming off the bench during my first few at-bats, I was pinch hitting and I would see an off speed pitch right away. I was not use to that as I had never pinch hit before. That was a big adjustment in itself. I picked all the veteran guys brains to see what they do to get ready for that situation and it seemed to help out a lot.”

How tough was it for you to sit on the bench, having always been a starter, then probably have to go to a batting cage—mid game—to loosen up? (SBF)

“Right, you are so right. My first At-Bat (as a pinch hitter) it was like the fourth or fifth inning. I look at the bench—our team is out in the field—and all the bench guys are gone. Like—what is this? Where is everyone at? (laughing). Then, I come to find out everyone is in the cages hitting. Made sense—so I got myself into that routine and went down there to join them. Whenever our pitcher got up to pitch in the middle of the game, I would get up head down to the cages--to get ready to hit--because you never know when your number will be called.”

Going from Single A Potomac to The Majors is a matter of minutes has got to be scary—no matter who you are. When did you realize you could compete at the top level? (SBF)

“I have always had the confidence—it was just more of getting the opportunity to actually play. When it comes down to it—the game is the same. Its just most guys are more experienced and they know how to do the little things here and there that make a big difference. Its my job to learn those little things as quickly as possible so I can become that veteran player.”

Sometimes you just need that one shot. (SBF)

“Yes, very true. And, it also about timing. Baseball is definitely a game of timing as to who is positioned in front of you and the teams needs at that time—you have to take advantage of those opportunities when they arise.”

You plan on making this team, don’t you? (SBF)

“I have been very blessed and that is my goal.”

Finally, we have Jason Dubois. A Virginia Beach Native who originally came up with The Chicago Cubs. A one time top prospect in that organization. Eventually traded to The Cleveland Indians--Dubois was injured and has struggled since. In 2007, Jason had a decent shot to make The Baltimore Orioles, but tore up a hamstring and sat out the entire season. Now, at the age of 29--Jason Dubois is looking to make a name for himself again with Our Washington Nationals. This man was quite the engaging fellow, fun to talk to, with a great southern accent. Jason Dubois gave me a nice first impression.

What do you think about your opportunity here with Washington? (SBF)

“Its pretty good. This is a very good organization. In fact, I am excited to be here and I am READY TO START PLAYING SOME BALL!! (Pumped Up—Jason was good)

So, you came here, because you felt there was a legitimate opportunity? (SBF)

There is always an opportunity, anywhere, any organization. Don’t ever sell yourself short. You never know what is going to happen. Someone might get traded, others might get hurt—and your chance arises. This year, I am out here and just ready to play. Last year was kind of a disappointment being injured (he blew out a hamstring in Spring Training with The Orioles). If I get the opportunity here—I will be ready to play. If not, I will still be ready to play if that opportunity comes later.”

When you had your previous Major League experiences—you were well known for your power---but was never able to stick. Was it a numbers game or something else? (SBF)

“Well, that’s all upper management decisions and what they had in mind. Certainly, I could have done some things differently to try to stick up there (Chicago Cubs & Cleveland Indians), but you live and you learn—sometimes hard. I have learned my lessons and hopefully will be back there (in the Majors) soon.”

What are those lessons? (SBF)

“Oooh!! A lot of lessons (both of us busting out laughing). Lets just leave it at that!!”

“So, what do you need to improve on to get you back in The Majors? (SBF)

“Its all about consistency. A lot of the Major Leaguers who are out here now—they are consistent. Even if they go into a batting slump—they are able to overcome quickly and succeed. That’s my most important aspect of my game that needs to improve. I need to be consistent. If I get into a slump, I need to get out of it—quickly. That is what separates the Major League guys from the rest. They can maintain their games—even when struggling.”

Do you see yourself as a power hitter still, or more of an all around hitter? (SBF)

“I consider myself more of a regular hitter. If power comes, it comes. I don’t try to hit home runs. Home runs are pretty much mistake pitches. I always try to drive in the runs—stay in the middle of the field—get my base hits when I can.”

When you come to a new team, like The Nationals—do you feel pressed to try to impress? (SBF)

(Chuckling) “I think every single organization you go to—especially as a non-roster guy, you want to be impressing people. Hopefully, I want to impress them on the field and not have to sit around and talk to them about what I am capable. You need the chance to play so they can keep an eye on you. So, in that respect—there is some pressure.”

You believe you will be given that chance? (SBF)


Because the numbers game always changes in baseball. (SBF)

“That is right. You are absolutely correct. It’s why I still play this game.”

So, there you have it. Three completely different players, all at various points in their baseball careers. All three of whom are battling for one spot-possibly two-with Our Washington Nationals. Yet, there are even more players in the mix (Rob Mackowiak, Willie Harris, & Garrett Guzman) fighting for those jobs at camp in Viera. The Bench for Our Manager Manny Acta will play an important role in 2008 and Ryan Langerhans, Justin Maxwell and Jason Dubois all want to be a part of it. How will the numbers game play out for these three performers? All three of whom are On The Outfield Bubble.


Anonymous said...

Good interviews, as always, but Langerhans was acquired from the A's. He spent about 5 days there.

Anonymous said...

What strikes me about all 3 of these guys is their self-confidence. I guess that a professional athlete just has to have that to be able to compete at that level. Of the 3 guys, I'm rooting hardest for Maxwell to make the final roster.

SenatorNat said...

As much as I love Maxwell - he reminds me of Len Elmore - UMD/Harvard type - I would just go nuts if Alex Escobar stayed healthy and was the fifth outfielder on the club: he would press Kearns, Lastings, and Pena every day to be at their best, or else! May be that Dukes is gone by May/June anyway should he implode emotionally over some slight, real or imagined; and then we could have Maxwell and Escobar rounding things out - two great guys...As for Scissorshans, at the plate, he was so monumentally bad last year that it is difficult to imagine a complete turn-around which will be required for him to win the 5th spot.

Trust in Fearing the Turtle. All Good.