Reporting David Elfin
When Stephen Strasburg returned to a major league mound with five scoreless innings of two-hit ball on Sept. 6, 2011 following a year away after major elbow surgery, Wilson Ramos was his catcher.
In the year and a half since, Ramos has been kidnapped in his native Venezuela and has torn the ACL and meniscus in his right knee. The former harrowing drama ended with his rescue after two days in captivity. But Ramos also felt like a hostage to the injury that occurred last May 12. He not only missed the final 129 games of Washington’s best season, he was unable to be part of the city’s first postseason baseball games in 69 years.
So while the rest of the Nationals who are back from last year are focused this spring on going further this fall, the 25-year-old Ramos is thrilled just to be healthy again and to be part of a winning team.
If wondering whether 19-year-old phenom Bryce Harper was going to make the team was the Nats’ focal point last spring, Ramos’ return is this year’s feel-good story in Viera.
“I feel like I’m on the team again,” said Ramos, who made his Grapefruit League debut on Sunday with a double in two at-bats as a designated hitter after catching multiple bullpen sessions, swatting numerous batting practice homers and even sliding on the basepaths during drills.
“He really looked good,” said manager Davey Johnson. “The gale blowing in and he turned it around and he looked good running the bases.”
Last Tuesday, Ramos earned another thumbs-up from Johnson after squatting behind the plate in a game for the first time since he was injured trying to get to a passed ball nearly 10 months ago in Cincinnati. Through five games, Ramos is also hitting .333.
Although Ramos is back, he’s in a different role. Jesus Flores, who took over when he was injured last year, is gone, but veteran Kurt Suzuki, sparkled after being acquired from Oakland on Aug. 3 and is now seemingly entrenched as the No. 1 catcher.
“We’ve got the opportunity to take our time with [Wilson],” said Nats general manager Mike Rizzo. “He’s progressing nicely. … He wants to go and go and go, and we’re going to be cautious with him. We want him for the long haul.”
That long haul isn’t just the 162-game grind of this coming season, not to mention the expected playoff contests. Ramos is Washington’s property through 2016. The Nats’ plan is for Ramos to play more as this season goes along and his knee regains full strength and mobility.
However, at least for now, the starting job belongs to Suzuki even though the only thing Ramos did to lose it was get hurt. He hit .267 with 15 homers and 52 RBI in 113 games during his only full season, 2011. In 43 games for Washington last year, Suzuki batted that same .267 with five homers and 25 RBI.
Of course, there’s more to being a catcher than hitting. His main job is to handle the pitching staff. The Nats led the National League with a 3.34 earned run average in 2012 while finishing second with 1,325 strikeouts as Flores caught the most innings. In 2011 with Ramos as the No. 1 catcher, Washington’s pitchers ranked sixth with a 3.58 ERA and 15th with 1,049 strikeouts while walking only 20 fewer batters (477).
The only other one-time Washington regular who could lose his starting spot is second baseman Danny Espinosa, whose late-season slump in 2012 opened the door for Steve Lombardozzi to challenge him this spring.
It might not seem fair that Ramos will be a backup this year even if he’s 100 percent. After all, Washington played at a .636 clip when he was the No. 1 catcher compared to .597 ball after he was lost for the season. But Suzuki was the man down the stretch and in the playoffs and so the job now belongs to the Hawaiian.
Unlike Wally Pipp, who was 32 when he took a day off for the 1925 New York Yankees and never got it back because Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig replaced him at first base, Ramos is young enough to ease back into a part-time role this summer.
“I don’t want to rush it and miss another season,” Ramos said.
Suzuki batted just .242 in 2010, .237 in 2011 and .218 last year for the A’s before coming to Washington. Maybe NL pitchers will catch up to him this year. What’s more, Suzuki will be a free agent in 2014. So maybe Ramos will be the Nats’ No. 1 catcher again this time next year. In the mean time, he’s just glad to be back.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin