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Chad Tracy is making his first start of the season today.
And then the season began and Tracy went from a lineup regular to a guy getting at most one at-bat per game, usually in a key spot against a tough reliever.
That's not the easiest adjustment for any player to make, let alone someone like Tracy who already faced a difficult adjustment returning to the major leagues after spending last year in Japan.
"It's been tough," he said this morning. "When your consistent at-bats aren't there any more, it tends to be a little tougher. We've been doing a lot of stuff down in the cages to try to keep those at-bats that I had in spring training kind of fresh."
What kind of stuff? Well, rather than take a traditional round of batting practice, Tracy has been taking "simulated at-bats" from Rick Eckstein, with Eckstein the hitting coach throwing at full velocity and even mixing in breaking balls.
Eckstein may not throw quite as hard as big-league pitchers, but because he stands only 45 feet from the plate, it's the equivalent of a 92-93 mph fastball.
"Forty-five feet, it's a lot harder to hit than it is at 60 feet," Tracy said. "Whatever he's featuring in there is usually a little bit better than what you're going to be facing out there, from a different distance. So it's been helpful."
Eckstein has been doing this for years, dating back to his time working with his brother (and former big leaguer) Rick. A relief pitcher in high school and junior college who once appeared in nine games in a span of seven days, Eckstein is able to offer his hitters something more than a traditional round of BP.
"I always liked that," he said. "My brother liked it when we do it. I think it kind of gives you that feel of tightening yourself up a little bit. And at times, I could throw a pretty good curveball. So give him a look at that, too, and try to spin it."
After spending the last two-plus weeks on the bench, Tracy today becomes the final position player on the Nationals' roster to start a game. He's filling in at first base for Adam LaRoche, batting cleanup against the Marlins.
The 31-year-old journeyman made a big splash off the bench during the Nationals' season-opening series in Chicago, delivering a key, ninth-inning double on Opening and then a two-run single two days later to drive in the winning runs. Since then, though, he's 0-for-7 with a walk.
Such is the challenge for a guy who typically gets only one at-bat per game.
"I've been doing a lot of work with Eck down in the cage, trying to stay sharp, a few different drills," Tracy said. "But getting to see a few at-bats strung together today should be good for me."