Alex Avila wasn’t supposed to play at all for the Washington Nationals on Thursday night, let alone play second base.
But there he was, on less than two hours’ notice, wearing Jordy Mercer’s glove, warming up at the keystone sack in the top of the first inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I was just trying to have fun with it and trying my best not to embarrass the team,” Avila told reporters after the Dodgers won 6-2 in a rain-shortened five innings.
Manager Davey Martinez penciled Avila’s name in for his first career start at second base, apparently after making a number of erasures because of a rash of injuries to the Nats’ infielders.
Trea Turner jammed his left middle finger on a diving slide in Wednesday’s wild win over Tampa Bay.
“Trea’s finger, we couldn’t get the swelling down. He tried, and I just don’t want him to get hurt any more,” said Martinez. “It’s a day-to-day thing. He feels like maybe in a few days, once the swelling goes down, he can play.”
Starlin Castro played shortstop, and Josh Harrison shifted to third base, but someone needed to fill Harrison’s spot at second.
‘Then Jordy came in today and he tried to play as well, and same thing,” the skipper continued. “He’s had a right quad injury before, and he just couldn’t get it loose,”
And the Nats apparently didn’t have a healthy infielder in their high minor leagues.
So, there, at the end of Martinez’s extremely short bench, was Avila.
“I mean, I’ve played the infield before, mainly first base. But obviously being in the middle of the infield was something very new,” said Avila, who, over 13 seasons, has played 46 games at first base and one game at third base — he’s even pitched three times.
“I probably haven’t taken ground balls in about three years, and didn’t get a chance to do anything today either because of the rain,” he continued.
“So it was just kind of going out there cold.”
Equipment was also an issue.
“I have a couple infield gloves, but none that I felt comfortable with taking out there for the game, so I used one of Jordy’s gloves.”
“I know he’s played third base before,” Martinez said, “but we tried to put him in a position where J-Hay [Harrison] was going to catch most of the ground balls.
“We told him exactly what we were going to do, we talked to J-Hay, told him exactly how we’re going to play this thing, and they both accepted it, which was awesome.”
Turned out it wasn’t necessary to hide Avila because the ball found him.
“I’ve been playing the game long enough I can certainly field a ground ball if I can get to it, but it was definitely interesting, just from that vantage point, being behind second base most of the game, shortstop, so it was fun.”
With two out and Justin Turner on first in the first inning, the Nats shifted Avila to the left side of the infield and sent Harrison and Castro to the right side for lefty Max Muncy, and Avila barely had to move to catch a line drive for the third out.
In the next inning, he got his first grounder while in the shift to the left of second base off the bat of Cody Bellinger, and Avila handled it cleanly and made the throw to first for the out.
Those were his only two chances in a contest that got lopsided in the fifth.
“It’s never good when you have to put a guy that hasn’t done something in a while in a different position, but he accepted it,” said Martinez.
“I know when he caught the first ball his teammates went wild, so and then he caught the ground ball and they were ecstatic.
“He stood out there, he did the best he can, which, that’s all we can ask for.”
Even with the shifts, Avila was ready.
“I thought Davey and [bench coach Tim Bogar] did a nice job as far as trying to hide me out there a little bit,” Avila said.
“I was purely focused on making sure I was ready for the ball coming off the bat, making sure I was in a position, since I was behind him most of the time, to be able to see the ball off the bat.
“I figured, like I showed with a couple of balls today, if I was going to be able to make the play and be somewhat competent out there, I’m not going to have the type of range like a middle infielder would, but I can catch the ball,” said the veteran of 924 games behind the plate. “I’ve got pretty good hands.”
Avila was told that his former manager in Detroit, Brad Ausmus, was the only player to start more games than Avila at catcher before making his first start at second base.
“I can’t imagine there have been too many guys that have caught as many guys as I have and then have to play the infield, at least on a start like that, the middle infield,” Avila said. “It doesn’t surprise me with Brad because he was a really good athlete. I can bring that up with him now, something that me and him are tied together. I played for him for a few years and played against him for a year or two as well, but it will be fun to text him and get his reaction on that.”
The Nats were apparently still looking late Thursday for someone to play second on Friday. Martinez revealed a stunning string of injuries to minor league infielders.
“Carter [Kieboom] is hurt. He’s got a knee injury, so he’s out, [Adriàn] Sanchez is out, [Luis] García is out. We can go to Double-A, [Jackson] Cluff is out. So, we’re dealing with a lot of injuries right now.
“We’re working through some stuff, hopefully something will work out for us, but we’ve got a lot of decisions to make tonight... We’re going to try to get somebody here that can play the middle of the field.”