The Washington Nationals’ outfield will look different next season, missing a couple of postseason heroes.
Gone will be Adam Eaton’s hard driving play and car-driving dugout celebrations along with Michael A. Taylor’s gliding center field defense, clutch bat, and seemingly wide-eyed wonder at just about everything.
The reality hit on Oct. 15 when the Nats granted Taylor free agency, and again later that month when the team declined its 2021 option on Eaton. When Taylor signed with the Kansas City Royals on Nov. 30, and Adam Eaton signed with the Chicago White Sox on Dec. 8, the truth sank in that the two outfielders would not play for the Nats again.
The 29-year-old Taylor, a National since the team selected him in the sixth round of the 2009 draft, developed a loyal following among fans with his smooth defense and penchant for big hits in the postseason. Eaton, 32, who came from the White Sox in a 2016 trade for pitchers Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dane Dunning, earned a reputation as a fiery, inspirational teammate. The fortunes of the two became entangled in 2017, when Taylor got a chance for his best big league season, partly because of an injury to Eaton.
Eaton suffered a torn ACL and meniscus and a high ankle sprain, just 23 games in, forcing the team to rethink its outfield plans. It would be the first of a rash of injuries that would include the other two starting outfielders, Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper, and even extend to then-top prospect Victor Robles in the minor leagues.
Taylor, who had already been given multiple chances as a starter and leadoff hitter, was forced back as the starting center fielder, and this time he came through, although in the eighth spot. He played in 117 games, the most of any Nats outfielder, and put together a .271/.320/.486 line with 19 home runs, 53 RBI, and 17 stolen bases. Meanwhile, the Nats rarely missed a beat, leading the National League East for all but three games and winning it by 20 games with a 97-65 record.
Fans appreciated Taylor’s seemingly effortless center field defense. He would glide under fly balls to make difficult catches look easy, which made his spectacular plays all the more special. But his surprisingly potent bat made him even more valuable. One particular magic moment came in an otherwise meaningless 5-4 loss to Philadelphia on Sept. 9, when Phillies’ center fielder Odubal Herrera misjudged Taylor’s bases-loaded line drive, and he turned on the jets to beat the relay throw home for an inside-the-park grand slam, the second in the history of the franchise.
But it was in the postseason when Taylor made his mark. With the Nats facing elimination in Game 4 of the the 2017 Division Series against the Cubs, clinging to a 1-0 lead in the eighth inning, Taylor launched a grand slam off Wade Davis into the wind at Wrigley Field to key a 5-0 win. Back in Washington the next night, Taylor hit a three-run homer off Kyle Hendricks to give the Nats a 4-1 lead in the second inning, although they would eventually lose 9-8.
The next time the Nats made the postseason, in 2019, Taylor’s iconic catch seemed to sum up the thrill of the team’s amazing turnaround season. With two out in the 10th inning of Game 5 of the NL Division Series, Taylor’s diving catch of Justin Turner’s line drive sealed the 7-3 win over the Dodgers and the franchise’s first postseason series victory. He leapt to his feet to show everyone the caught ball, and his smile seemed to light up Dodger Stadium on its own while his teammates dog-piled at the pitcher’s mound.
He would later hit a home run in Game 2 of the NL Championship Series against St. Louis to help the Nats sweep their way to their first pennant, and another in Game 2 of the World Series against Houston, helping the team to its first world championship.
Eaton’s play was also key to the World Series victory, but he had to keep coming back from injuries before playing the best baseball of his career on the game’s biggest stage.
Having missed almost the entire 2017 season, Eaton started the 2018 campaign by showing the fans what they’d been missing. He hit safely in the team’s first four games and five of the first six to win NL Player of the Week honors. But something with his surgically-repaired left leg was still not right. He did not have his usual speed, and he was awkward in the field. He re-injured his left ankle sliding into home April 5 against the New York Mets and had to leave the game. That led to more surgery and more missed time.
Eaton returned to action in May and was generally healthy for the rest of the season, putting up a career-best batting average in his .301/.394/.411 line. It was a bright spot on a sluggish 82-80 Nats team that never really came around and missed the postseason under rookie skipper Davey Martinez.
Eaton was healthy again in 2019, playing in 151 games and adding his own touch to the team’s dugout dance home run celebrations. After he or Howie Kendrick went deep, the two would sit next to each other and mime as if driving their cars, pushing down the imaginary clutch and shifting gears.
Eaton also earned some derision on social media for his comments about minor league conditions in a July interview. Eaton said he believes the low pay and spartan conditions in the minor leagues are good for players, hardening them, motivating them to make the major leagues, and making them appreciate their status once they got to “the show.”
While Eaton struggled early in the NL playoffs, his bat was key in the World Series. He hit safely in five of the seven games and finished at .320/.433/.560 with a pair of homers, five runs, six RBI, and four walks. He also homered in the Game 2 rout, and his ninth-inning single in Game 7 under the glove of Jake Marisnick turned a relatively tight 4-2 game into a more comfortable 6-2 margin before Daniel Husdon closed it out with a 1-2-3 inning.
What sealed the fate of both Taylor and Eaton were forgettable 2020 seasons. Neither got off the ground in the pandemic-shortened campaign. Eaton struggled to a career-low .226/.285/.384 mark through 41 games before fracturing his left index finger on Sept. 19. Taylor saw action in 38 games but slumped to .196/.253/.424.
After Eaton was hurt, Martinez gave fans a possible glimpse of the future, playing Juan Soto in right field while Andrew Stephenson also got more time.
Both Taylor and Eaton are looking to put the 2020 season behind them and revive their careers in the American League, but fans in Washington should long remember their contributions to a winning franchise and a World Series title.