When did Jake Noll realize that it was a serious possibility that he might actually make the Washington Nationals’ Opening Day roster? Talking before Thursday’s season opener with the New York Mets, the 25-year-old, 2016 7th Round draft pick said it started to seem real when he looked around the Nats’ clubhouse in West Palm Beach, FL’s FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and found himself alone in a corner of the clubhouse where all the long shot candidates and prospects had their lockers.
“When I started looking around and realizing my locker was like the only one in my corner that wasn’t empty then I realized, you know, this could possibly happen,” Noll said.
Noll finished up the Spring 16 for 51 (.314/.386/.510) with four doubles, two home runs, five walks and 10 Ks in 27 games, making a strong case for himself as the Nationals made a few final decisions on who would make the 25-Man roster.
While Howie Kendrick’s injury played a role in the decision, opening a spot, both Nationals’ manager Davey Martinez and GM Mike Rizzo talked about Noll’s versatility as a big positive in his favor.
Rizzo also said it was an opportunity to send a message to the other players throughout the organization.
“We wanted to show our younger players too that Spring Training counts,” he explained.
“[Noll] kind of forced our hand to keep him on the team and to make the club and that’s what young players have to strive to do, is to make things impossible for us to send them back to the minors.”
When did Noll making it start to seem like a legitimate possibility to the General Manager?
“He got an invite to big league camp for a reason off of his season in 2018 and then the Arizona Fall League,” Rizzo said.
“When I saw him play out there [in Arizona], he really kind of opened my eyes that his guy could be a valuable piece for us down the road, and I think that his demeanor in the clubhouse and the way that he handled himself on the field with the veterans, and then came out and showed early in Spring Training that he could really hit the fastball, he could hit velocity. He was really dangerous against left-handed pitching, and we put him all over the field. He didn’t play much first base before Spring Training, and seemed to handle that position fairly well.
“We had him take balls in the outfield, we know he can play third, and we know he can play second, so he gives us some opportunities and some options for Davey off the bench.”
“His at bats were really good in the Spring,” Martinez said, “so we liked what we saw, and ... he gives us a little bit of a threat right-handed up there at the plate.”
Noll said he was excited about the idea of coming off the bench and facing some southpaw pitchers.
“I love hitting off lefties,” he said, “... so I just have to stay prepared and be ready to go when my name is called.”
“There was a lot of talk about him in the Fall League, how well he did,” Martinez said when he too was asked when the infielder first showed up on his radar.
“And we brought him to camp, and just watching him, and watching him moving around and [playing] different positions, what I was really excited about was how well he moves in the infield. We put him at second base and he held his own. You put him at first base and he did really well. Third base. I even asked him if he can play the outfield, and he’s been out there shagging fly balls, and looks really good. I also asked him if he’s ever caught before, and he has caught bullpens in college, and that’s huge, just carrying two catchers, that he can go out in an emergency and do that.”
“I work hard on it every day,” Noll said of his versatility. “I take ground balls all over the field, fly balls out in the outfield, just wherever I need to be. It’s not easy to be able to do that, but I mean, whatever it takes to help the team win.”
Noll agreed with his manager and the Nationals’ GM that his trip to the AFL this past fall played an important part in boosting his confidence.
“I went out to the Fall League, and being around all those guys who are all about taking the next step, it was nice being around them and learning stuff from everybody and different coaching staffs,” Noll said. “I wouldn’t say I changed much, I just learned a little more about the game, approach and everything.”
How did Noll react to hearing the news that he was going to be included on the Opening Day roster?
“He had this like, this little kiddish gleam in his face,” Martinez said, “... and I just told him, I said, ‘Hey, well-deserved.’ I actually had him address the team yesterday, which was kind of funny, but he spoke, and said he loved his teammates, which was kind of nice.”
“After the exhibition game [on Monday] I got called into Davey’s office and he let me know, and best feeling of my life,” Noll said.
Who was the first person he told?
“My mom, texted my mom about it and she was thrilled, you know. Neither of us thought we’d be in this position right away, so it’s crazy.”