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Photo: Paul Kim/Washington Nationals
Photo: Paul Kim/Washington Nationals

Play-by-Play Voice Charlie Slowes Expects Nats to Heat Up with Weather

Cable television is a luxury for many people these days. That means that Nationals fans who wish to follow their team could have trouble accessing MASN, the Nats’ home broadcasting network. Hence, the importance of radio.

“Sometimes all it takes is a comeback like this to turn your fate around,” an authoritative voice crooned over the airwaves.

That was Charlie Slowes, the play-by-play announcer for the Nationals’ radio affiliate 106.7 FM The Fan, speaking on April 16 during a tight game between the Mets and the Nats. A few pitches later, Michael A. Taylor, who entered the game with a .193 batting average, walked to force in the go-ahead run, and the Nats went on to win 8-6.

Taylor’s go-ahead walk came at a critical juncture early in the season. The Nats lost eight of their previous 11 games entering the series against the Mets, who stormed out of the gates to a 12-2 record. The Nationals ended up taking two of three games in the series to stop their early season skid.

For all 14 seasons that Nats baseball has existed in DC, Slowes has been the voice calling the games, engaging fans through the airwaves. When we got a chance to chat with Slowes off-air, he noted that it’s important not to sound the alarms just because of a slow start.

“You’re talking about a tenth of a season,” Slowes told On Tap the morning after the April 16 game, adding that there’s reason to keep the faith in a reigning first-place team. “I’m always excited at the start of a season. They’ve got Scherzer and Strasburg at the top of the rotation. They’ve got a backend of the bullpen that they didn’t really have last year, with a track record of success. Bryce [Harper] looks like he’s primed for a big, big year.”

Slowes noted that this April was abnormally cold and dismal, hardly the kind of weather that wakes Major League hitters out of their offseason slumbers – even the cherry blossoms stayed in their beds a few weeks longer than expected.

“Hell, let’s see the weather get warm,” Slowes said. “It hasn’t really been baseball weather. But you figure by May, it will be.”

Any baseball fan worth his weight in pine tar knows that warm weather and hitting go together like spaghetti and meatballs. Moreover, key pieces in the Nats’ lineup were missing at the start of the April 16 game. Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon and Daniel Murphy – essential pieces in the Nationals’ batting order – spent time out of the lineup in April because of injury.

The Nationals entered the April 16 game with MLB ranks of 13th in runs scored, 19th in team batting average and 15th in team on-base plus slugging. At the end of 2017, the Nats ranked fifth, fourth and fourth in those categories, respectively. With a fully loaded lineup, one would expect the numbers to more closely resemble last season’s.

But unlike last season, when the Nats finished 20 games ahead of the second-place Marlins, our team has more to worry about than just their own performance. The National League East has vastly improved.

For example, the Mets welcomed back their young pitching phenom Noah “Thor” Syndergaard and potent hitters Michael Conforto and Yoenis Céspedes, all of whom missed significant time in 2017. Meanwhile, the Braves and Phillies have started to reap the benefits of their “rebuilding” phases. For both teams, a talented crop of young prospects has finally begun to arrive at the Major League level.

But maybe a little competition isn’t so bad.

“Maybe that will be a good thing,” Slowes said. “When you are a runaway winner in the division, and you don’t play any meaningful games, then September becomes a little bit more like spring training. Then you’ve got to flip a switch [when the playoffs begin].”

After a shaky performance coming out of this year’s spring training, the Nationals needed to search hard to flip that proverbial switch. If nothing else, the Nats – to invoke another idiom – have gotten a wake-up call to start the season.

For more info on the Nats’ 2018 season, go to www.mlb.com/nationals.

Nationals Park: 1500 South Capitol St. SE, DC; 202-675-6287; www.mlb.com/nationals

Photo: Courtesy of the Washington Nationals Baseball Club
Photo: Courtesy of the Washington Nationals Baseball Club

Breakout Batter: Meet Michael A. Taylor

The “A” has always stood for Anthony. Now, it stands for his performance.

Michael A. Taylor, center fielder for the Washington Nationals, established himself last season as one of the young players to watch in Major League Baseball. He finished among the top three Gold Glove candidates at his position in the National League despite playing in a mere 118 contests. In his injury-abbreviated season – Taylor spent most of July and part of August on the disabled list with a strained right oblique – he swatted 19 home runs and stole 17 bases. Only five other National League players can say the same about their 2017 campaigns.

“I think [one] of the major changes I made [was] my view going into the game, and what I consider successful for me a lot of the time,” Taylor says. “I would get caught up in the result, and baseball is a game of failures day in and out – whether that’s just swinging at good pitches or moving a runner [and] making hard contact.”

Hard contact was something that drew Taylor into the spotlight late in 2017. In September and October of the regular season, he had one of the best stretches of his career in terms of power, notching seven home runs that included an inside-the-park grand slam against the Phillies. Taylor’s power took the national stage in the playoffs, when he hit yet another grand slam, this time to seal a win over the Cubs and force game five of the National League Division Series.

Then, in game five, he hit a three-run bomb into the Cubs bullpen in left, giving the Nationals the lead in what ended as a heartbreaking 9-8 loss. That’s nine home runs in 33 games among September, October and the postseason, for whoever is counting. Taylor isn’t one of them.

“I try not to make too much of statistics,” he says. “I go out there and try to do my best.”

Regarding his unexpected, late-season mash fest, Taylor says he thinks it’s a byproduct of a good approach in his game.

“Home runs will come. When I try to force home runs, I end up putting myself in a bad spot, swinging too hard or swinging at pitches out of the zone.”

Taylor’s approach will be much-scrutinized at the start of 2018. For the first time since 2015, he’s the favorite to start in center field at the beginning of the season. In 2016 and 2017, respectively, trade acquisitions Ben Revere and Adam Eaton filled that role. Thanks to Taylor’s breakout 2017 and his superb defense, Eaton is now moving to left field while Taylor hunkers down as the “field general” in center.

The potential scrutiny doesn’t seem to faze Taylor, who maintains a calm, composed demeanor in on-camera interviews. Part of his confidence stems from a positive relationship with Nationals fans. Even during his first two-plus seasons in the majors, during which Taylor hit a combined .228 and struck out more than once a game, he says fans had his back. In 2017, Taylor returned the favor, lifting his average to .271 with an OPS of .806.

“One thing I can say about fans in DC [is] they’ve been very supportive through my whole career. I’m very grateful for that. Even the years I felt like I didn’t perform as well as I’d like, they still were behind me and very supportive.”

Taylor is also lucky in some respects. In June, then-Nationals Manager Dusty Baker called him “one of the most fortunate dudes” he had ever managed, according to Patrick Reddington of SB Nation’s Federal Baseball blog. For example, although he didn’t start opening day in 2016 and 2017, he did see significant playing time both seasons because of injuries to Revere and Eaton. This year, he also has the benefit of two experienced, talented outfielders – Eaton and Bryce Harper – flanking him in left and right.

“They make it really easy on me,” Taylor says of Eaton and Harper. “Those guys have a lot of experience and are great outfielders. I think we work very well together. We’re all on the same page. They make it easy and encourage me to go out there and take the lead.”

Adding to the rocky beginnings of Taylor’s career is the fact that he’s had three different managers since the beginning of 2015. This season, Dave Martinez takes over, and based on Taylor’s attitude, it’s just another fortuitous turn.

“Davey has been great. [He] communicates with the guys every day. It’s been very laid-back and energetic. I’ve really enjoyed spring training with him, and I’m looking forward to a full season.”

A full season is actually one concern lingering around Taylor, even now that he has established himself as a serious player. In spring training, what the Nationals called “tightness” in his right side – the same side as his oblique strain last season – forced him out of the lineup on March 5. Luckily, he returned to the Nationals’ Grapefruit League lineup on March 17, going one for three with a pair of strikeouts.

So what’s Taylor’s goal for 2018? Play in 162 games? Reach the 20-home-run, 20-stolen-base plateau? Make up for that near miss at a Gold Glove?

“To win a World Series,” he says.

If Taylor, with all of his good fortune, helps the Nationals bring home the World Series trophy, he can go ahead and add “plus” to that “A” in the middle of his name.

The Washington Nationals’ home opener is on Thursday, April 5 at 1:05 p.m., when they will host the New York Mets at Nats Park. For more information on Taylor and the Nats’ 2018 season, visit www.mlb.com/nationals.

Nationals Park: 1500 South Capitol St. SE, DC; 202-675-6287; www.mlb.com/nationals