Eaton is right where he belongs — at top of Nationals' lineup


The first Washington Nationals batter on Wednesday afternoon took a strike from St. Louis Cardinals starter Mike Leake, worked the count to 2-1, then lashed a high line drive off the 377-foot sign in left-center field on one hop for an opposite-field double.

Adam Eaton dashed around the bases with his feet scooting so quickly he might as well have been barefoot and the infield made of hot coals. Everything about his swing and his base running was compact, crisp and polished — the work of an intense craftsman — yet also filled with a barely contained electricity. 

Mighty Mouse is right where he ought to be: at the top of the lineup. The Nats should hope that the 5-foot-7 Eaton, who wears a T-shirt with that cartoon character on it in the clubhouse, continues to play well enough for him to stay there — batting either first or second, in tandem with Trea Turner. Maybe for the next five seasons.

Eaton, who was hitting .333 with a .452 on-base percentage after nine games — all while hitting first or second — is not a player whose ability will be maximized batting sixth, where the Nats and Manager Dusty Baker had him hitting throughout spring training. Eaton, under team control through 2021, and Turner, through 2022, are a 1-2 duo, hitting in either order, that should be given months to click together. 

In baseball, with its long season and endless plot twists, sometimes the important good breaks that change the multi-year picture of a ballclub come disguised as annoying short-term bad breaks that last only days. Teams are forced to change. Then, suddenly, the change works better than the original plan.

Everybody says, "What were we thinking? We were saved from ourselves."

That may be happening to the Nats right now. So far, Eaton, who already has four doubles, a homer, nine runs scored and two stolen bases, has been the package that General Manager Mike Rizzo advertised in December when he traded three good pitching prospects for "a guy who plays like his hair is on fire."

"It's good that things have gone this way so far. Sometimes it can take at least a season," said Eaton, meaning for a new player to show his wares properly. "It can go the other way, too," he added, grinning. "Don't pencil it in yet." 

But so far so good. And it didn't have to work out this smoothly.

On opening day, Eaton walked into the Nats' clubhouse, looked at the day's lineup and did a double take worthy of vaudeville. What?! He was expecting "No. 6" again. Instead, he was hitting No. 2 — in line with his identity throughout his career as a leadoff man, or at least a top-of-the-order speedster. 

Eaton didn't betray his enthusiasm that day. New man on the team. Happy to do what you tell me. But, with Anthony Rendon out with a one-day injury, this lineup shuffle gave him his chance to make a first impression. Few Nats, including Baker, watched Eaton's stellar play the previous three years in the American League. He was a kind of secret star who did some of everything very well but didn't knock your eyes out with any one skill. 

In that opener, Eaton walked twice, doubled into the right field corner and stole a base. Baker decided not to fix what wasn't broken — not for a while anyway. Each day provided another reason to put Eaton at No. 2. Now, with Turner on the 10-day disabled list with a strained hamstring, Eaton will certainly be hitting leadoff for another week.

Why have a 162-game season if you don't use a fat chunk of it to find out if you have a Dynamic Duo? Yet the Nats have been brainstorming since they got to spring training, studying stats and precedents, to figure out how to construct their lineup. They're thinking too much. 

Some would like to see Jayson Werth hit second, especially against left-handers, whom he crushes. But Werth is presumably in his last year with the Nationals. Why not think bigger — with an Eaton-Turner or Turner-Eaton ignition switch for years? Let them learn how to work off each other.

In his career, Eaton has hit .286 batting leadoff and .284 hitting second with all his other stats comparable as well. But, he said, "the difference is huge between the two spots." At leadoff, he has "to grind out at-bats and see a lot of pitches," he said. But if he hit second, behind Turner, his head spins at all the possibilities to hit through the right-side hole or bunt when Turner reaches base. He would also see tons of fastballs to deter Turner from stealing and to avoid walking Eaton with Bryce Harper up next.

Rizzo has studied whether Turner would be a good No. 2 hitter. In particular, he wondered whether his stolen base totals would be badly crimped by having Eaton on base ahead of him. 

"Adam was second in all of baseball last year in percentage of times going first-to-third on singles and also second in going first-to-home on doubles," Rizzo said. In other words, he'd impede Turner's thievery some, but less than almost any other player. Yes, Rizzo has probably been an Eaton-Turner proponent since the day the trade was made. But managers really do make lineups. 

Wherever Eaton eventually fits in the order, his teammates already sense his value. 

"When you come to a new team, it really helps to get off to a good start, like Adam has. If you don't, it creates pressure," Werth said. "We're still learning about [Eaton]. But I'll pay him one compliment already, and it's one I don't give very often — he's a baseball player. He has the right instincts. He knows the game."

That will probably show itself anywhere he hits. But sometimes you have a strong opinion. Mine is that this is the spring to find out if there is chaos-creating chemistry between Eaton and Turner. You can always adjust later. 

When Triple Trea and Mighty Mouse get back together next week, find out if they can make defenses look like the silly cartoon characters.


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