The Washington Post
Candelario hopes bounce-back year starts with WBC
Already making impact with Nats, infielder gets ‘dream’ chance for D.R.
west palm beach, fla. — Jeimer Candelario called it “every Dominican kid’s dream” — the opportunity to play in the World Baseball Classic. He watched when Robinson Canó was named MVP in 2013, marveling that the baseball world was able to see that players “from a little island can do really special stuff.”
When Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. dropped out of the tournament with a knee injury, the 29-yearold Candelario got the call. Nelson Cruz, general manager of the Dominican Republic’s team and a former National, reached out to Manager Dave Martinez about the possibility. Candelario accepted. But there was one slight hiccup: Candelario’s wife was pregnant with the couple’s second child, a girl, and was due to give birth soon. Really soon.
The baby came, and Candelario
was off to the WBC.
“It was a really hard decision for us,” Candelario said ahead of the birth. “But at the same time, I talked with my wife, and thank God. Hopefully, everything goes well and I can go and have some fun and win some games in the [ WBC].”
If all is well with his wife and newborn over the next few days, Candelario will join the Dominican Republic team Thursday. He will join a group stacked with talent, including stars Juan Soto, Julio Rodríguez, Manny Machado and Sandy Alcantara.
When Candelario returns after the tournament, the Nationals hope he will be ready for a bounce-back year. Just two years ago, Candelario tied for the most doubles in the majors while playing for the Detroit Tigers. But last season, he finished with a .217 batting average.
Hitting coach Darnell Coles said he looked back at last season and felt as if Candelario’s focus was on pulling the ball more than he had in years past. Candelario also admitted the shift affected him at times, but said regardless of Major League Baseball’s new rules — which include a shift crackdown — he wants to think the middle of the field. Coles believes that approach will keep Candelario’s barrel through the zone longer.
When Candelario hit a careerhigh .297 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he barreled up the baseball on 10.3 percent of his swings. Last season, the number was 8.3 percent. Another telling stat is his percentage of swings hitting under the baseball: 28.4 percent. In 2020, that figure was much lower at 21.3 percent; it moved up slightly to 21.8 percent in 2021. Those swings probably led to more popups.
“When you know you could do something and you’re not doing it, it’s really tough,” Candelario said. “But I’ve always said that [you are] going to have some ups and downs in your career, in your life. You can’t sit and cry. You’ve got to be a man. You’ve got to be a grinder to get back to that normal life. . . . If you help the team win, everything’s going to take care of itself.”
Candelario probably will be the team’s everyday third baseman when he returns. He has shown himself to be a strong clubhouse presence.
On Tuesday, as Candelario watched outfielder Lane Thomas hit line-drive homers from the dugout, he remarked: “He’s a good player, I like him.” A few minutes later, he saw infield duo CJ Abrams and Luis García shagging flyballs. “They’re going to be really good,” he said. “Just give it time.”
Abrams said earlier in camp that he and García can learn by watching Candelario and first baseman Dom Smith in the infield. Coaches also are noticing that impact.
“He’s another coach on the field,” Coles said. “He sees the potential of those young guys, and he’s been there, so he understands it. So the lessons that he’s learned, he’s given some of those lessons that it’s allowed them to relax and go play.”
Outfielder Derek Hill — who was among the 15 cuts Tuesday — first met Candelario in 2020, during workouts at the Tigers’ alternate site. Candelario had been in the Detroit organization since 2017 and Hill since 2014, but Hill wasn’t sure how to approach him.
But one day, Candelario hit a slicing ball to center field. Hill took off to track it down and made an over-the-shoulder catch. Candelario was convinced the ball hit the ground. The two bantered back and forth over the next few days before Candelario finally admitted Hill had caught the ball.
Slowly, the two bonded. Hill called Candelario soft and likable once he got to know him. Since then, Hill said Candelario has always been there to give him advice. Fast forward to last month. When Candelario was doing his first interview in the clubhouse in February, Hill walked by his locker to get his attention and say hello.
“He’s outstanding, just character-wise,” Hill said. “On the field, my guy rakes. It’s going to be exciting to see him in a new park, new jersey and hopefully have an outstanding breakout year again.”
Note: Outfielder Victor Robles suffered a left knee contusion after making a running catch in center field during the Nationals’ 2-1 loss to the Tigers on Wednesday, according to Martinez. He is considered day-to-day. When Robles made contact with the center field wall, he hit a pipe located behind it, Martinez said.