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Carter Kieboom is now focused on keeping his job

Carter Kieboom is now focused on keeping his job

Carter Kieboom was back in a batter’s box Wednesday to face Max Scherzer. He faced him once before, back at spring training in 2017, and struck out. How did it go Wednesday?

“Same outcome,” Kieboom said with a smile.

He’s able to laugh in the moment as the Major League Baseball season resumes. Kieboom is the starting third baseman for the defending World Series champions. Being granted the position is the first step in the 22-year-old’s full-time work in Major League Baseball. He was an injury replacement at shortstop for an 11-game spell last season. This year, he’s mandated with taking over the spot vacated when a 2019 MVP finalist moved on.

In spring training, the third base job was part of a competition between Kieboom and Asdrúbal Cabrera. Martinez gave the job to Kieboom to start “Summer Camp.” When he received the news, Kieboom had a singular thought: “Keep the job.”

RELATED: TREA TURNER CALLS 2020 SEASON A 'FLUID SITUATION'

To do so, all aspects of his game at the major-league level need to improve. That, of course, is a general expectation of anyone entering their first starting position in the big leagues. Kieboom’s small, bumpy, sample size of work from last season will either end up harbinger or outlier. The Nationals suspect it’s the latter.

Primary among his development is his defense. In particular, his footwork at third base. Kieboom practiced individually at home from mid-March, when spring training ended, until work in Washington resumed this week. His preference would have been to be playing actual games, but he thinks the time to relentlessly drill could end up being beneficial.

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"I totally agree with that,” Kieboom said. “I think it's very easy to kind of throw the towel in and get frustrated that you're so close to a season and it all gets washed away the way it did. It kind of was a blessing in disguise because I found some things I was doing in spring training I didn't really care for from the offensive side and the defensive side. I can continue to work on those. Footwork, I have to keep working on my footwork. It bought me some more time to keep working on that, hone that craft. And offensively the same thing, I got to make some adjustments and kind of go back to the drawing board at home and work on those things."

His time now is limited. The season is two weeks away. The Nationals lost their Monday workout window. They were able to face live pitching Wednesday. Thursday will be a quiet day. Friday will resume full workouts. Next Monday, practices will shift to the evenings, one more small step toward emulating the rapidly-approaching season.

Then, eventually on July 23, Carter Kieboom will be standing at third base.

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Juan Soto impressed in his first game back but is still working up to full strength

Juan Soto impressed in his first game back but is still working up to full strength

One game into his 2020 season, Juan Soto is already filling up the Nationals’ highlight reel.

The 21-year-old outfielder missed Washington’s first eight games of the season after testing positive for the coronavirus on the morning of the team’s opener. He finally returned to the lineup Wednesday and went 2-for-4 with an RBI double and a diving catch in left field.

“It feels good to be back,” Soto said after the game. “Being back with the team, trying to have fun in the game and everything. It’s amazing being with my team and my teammates and being ready to go.”

Washington didn’t win the game, snapping a three-game winning streak with a 3-1 loss at the hands of the New York Mets. But even though the offense wasn’t clicking, Soto’s presence gave the lineup a much deeper look than it had over the first two weeks of the season. He hit fourth, with second baseman Starlin Castro slotted in front of him and Howie Kendrick hitting fifth as the designated hitter.

RELATED: LOSING MAX SCHERZER AND STEPHEN STRASBURG IS THE NATIONALS' BIGGEST NIGHTMARE

“In his first at-bat, he took a breaking ball and smoked it to left field for a double,” manager Davey Martinez said. “[Then he] took a ball up and in, stayed inside the ball, base hit to right. But he looked good, he really did. Little jumpy, but that’s to be expected his first game back. But he looked good.

“I love writing his name in the lineup hitting fourth. It’s nice. So hopefully we continue to build him up and he gets ready to play and we can put him out there every day. I always say, he’s 21 years old so it doesn’t take him long to get ready, get loose. But we definitely got to keep an eye on him.”

Soto originally was cleared to return practicing Saturday, but the Nationals had the weekend off after their series with the Miami Marlins was postponed because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the Fish’s clubhouse. He participated in simulated games through Monday and was available off the bench Tuesday against the Mets.

Despite his strong performance Wednesday, the Nationals have an off-day Thursday that plays to Soto’s advantage by allowing him to take a day to rest. Martinez said he anticipates Soto being ready to go Friday when the Nationals open up a three-game series with the Baltimore Orioles.

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“I’m going to rest tomorrow because I played nine innings, I don’t play nine innings in a long time,” Soto said. “We’re going to try to rest my legs, try…to keep in shape and try to come ready to Friday.”

Late start or not, Soto doesn’t plan on easing into action. After a scheduled off-day Thursday, the Nationals will have 13 straight days with a game. He said that while he will take advantage of the chance to rest, there will be no breaks once the games begin.

“I just try to play hard,” Soto said. “Every time I’m in the field, it doesn’t matter…if I’m in there, it’s because I’m going to give my 100 percent. If I come to the field and I’m in the lineup, I’m going to give my 100 percent no matter what. And when I’m in the middle of those two lines, I’m ready to give my 100 percent.”

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Losing Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg is the Nationals' biggest nightmare

Losing Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg is the Nationals' biggest nightmare

WASHINGTON -- Post a list of oh-no situations in the Nationals clubhouse and losing Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg at the same time would be on top of it.

That, at least temporarily, is the situation for the Nationals following Scherzer’s departure Wednesday night. A couple hours after Strasburg finished a 32-pitch simulated game in Nationals Park, Scherzer left his start one inning and 27 pitches into it. Scherzer said postgame he “tweaked” his hamstring Tuesday when sprinting in the outfield. He went on to say he doesn’t expect the issue to last.

“I’m really not concerned about this,” Scherzer said after the Nationals’ 3-1 loss to the Mets.

His right hamstring also gave him trouble before his July 29 start against Toronto. Scherzer pitched through it then, piling up 112 pitches. He could not -- or would not -- work through it Wednesday after catcher Kurt Suzuki expressed concern about the look of his pitches following the top of the first inning.

“Zook saw what my stuff was playing like -- he didn’t like it,” Scherzer said. “He just didn’t like what he saw -- how the ball was coming out of my hand. We just had a conversation: ‘Just get out of here. You’re taking on too much risk to continue to pitch.’ I didn’t injure it any further. I didn’t do anything worse. That was my limit for [Wednesday]. I wasn’t going to push past that limit.”

RELATED: AS JUAN SOTO RETURNS, BASEBALL IS REMINDED OF JUST HOW MUCH IT MISSED HIM

The Nationals have sunk their money and faith into the starting rotation. It won them a World Series last year. Its existence is a prime result of Mike Rizzo’s foundational preference in team building. The organization gave long-term contracts to Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. Paying pitchers for such an extended period can be problematic. It hasn’t been in Washington.

Though, this year, the two top ends of that approach are not available to pitch in the season’s third week. It could be temporary. Strasburg’s simulated game went well Wednesday. His return to the mound could come Sunday in Nationals Park against Baltimore or Monday in New York against the Mets. The right wrist impingement which led to a nerve problem in his hand has calmed. Multiple injections and time off stifled the pain. The main problem before? He couldn’t get a feel for his pitches.

“I was waking up in the middle of the night and my hand was asleep,” Strasburg previously said. “Kept falling asleep and I was getting these feelings, and it wasn’t really bothering me throwing. It seemed like once I tried starting to ramp up and stuff, the symptoms started to increase.”

Which was exactly the concern across the league before the season began. Too much too fast was on the mind of every manager in July. It remains so in August. Martinez thought about the idea when he saw what he termed “weird” injuries around the league. His general concern exists around the bevy of older players on the Nationals. He was also wary of pushing 21-year-old Juan Soto back to the field too soon. A short season is a short season. But, years of team control -- as is the case for Strasburg and Soto -- is the long game. Not exchanging now for later has to be part of the thought process.

“We had to ramp these guys up fairly quickly,” Martinez said. “I know with our guys -- Max, Stras, all these guys -- they worked diligently over three months. These things during the course of a year....I’ll tell you right now it’s been really, really hot here. These guys are getting after it. That might have something to do with it. Dehydration. I just hope [Thursday] Max wakes up, he feels better, we get him back Friday, we’ll see where he’s at, then go from there.

“But we’ve got to be really, really careful. We really do.”

Scherzer is toward the end of his journey. This is year six of the seven on his $210 million contract. The deal is a win if Wednesday night was his last appearance (it won’t be). Scherzer has finished in the top five of National League Cy Young voting every year in Washington. He’s been among the three finalists four times. He’s won twice.

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Scherzer also turned 36 years old nine days ago. He went through multiple injured list stints last season because of back and neck problems. And, eventually, was part of stunning World Series news when he had to be scratched from his Game 5 start after his neck locked up on him the morning prior. Scherzer said he fell out of bed and his wife, Erica, had to help dress him because he could not raise his arm above his shoulder. He was back on the mound for Game 7.

He felt his delivery was causing the problem. Scherzer said in March video showed his glove in the wrong place, straining his back. This time, his hamstring groaned during his regular running routine. These are the kind of injuries that pile up with age. Scherzer’s ability to push aside the aging process during the life of his contract is almost as impressive as the outcomes all the times he does pitch. Run, lift, prepare, post. It’s a formula which kept him on the mound with regularity for a decade.

However, the process has become more challenging since last August when his back and neck problems began. This could well be a blip, though hamstring injuries rarely are. They tend to linger and nag, much like the problems for the Nationals to start 2020, which were precisely what they wanted to avoid.

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