Twelve years ago, Adam Eaton played in the state championship game with Kenton Ridge High School. Nine years ago, he played his last game with the Miami RedHawks and heard his name called in the 19th round of the draft. Seven years ago, he made his big-league debut.
One thing Eaton has not done in eight seasons in Major League Baseball is play in the postseason, but his wait ends at 8:08 p.m. Tuesday when his Washington Nationals play host to the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Wild Card game. It’s something he has imagined since he was a little kid in Springfield.
“You dream of getting a big playoff hit or just playing in the playoffs or getting to the World Series or whatever it may be,” Eaton said Thursday. “In ‘17, I was banged up with the knee, and I was unable to help the team but got a good experience being around the team during the playoff run and going on the road. It killed me not to play. Now I’ll hopefully show some worth in the playoffs and we’ll make a good run here.”
After two injury-plagued seasons — he played in 23 games in 2017 and 95 in 2018 — Eaton stayed healthy and put together one of his best seasons. In 150 games, playing mostly right field and hitting second in the order, he hit a career-best 15 home runs and scored a career-high 102 runs. His .280 batting average was a bit below his career mark (.285), but his on-base percentage (.364) was just above his career average (.363).
Eaton’s best month was August when he hit .329 with five home runs, including three in three straight games, but he was consistent all summer. From June 1 to Aug. 31, he hit .308 with a .403 on-base percentage.
“Early on, I felt like I kind of battled,” Eaton said. “I wasn’t banged up, but I was still trying to get my legs underneath me. I’m excited to finish this year out, but I think next year will be my best by far. I gained the knowledge of playing a full season healthy again and was really figuring my swing out, figuring my body out. I think there’s a lot more there. That’s the frustrating part. I feel like I’ve only been hitting for three months. The first three months, I was kind of sleepy.”
The same could be said for the Nationals, who were 19-31 on May 23 and nowhere near the wild-card conversation. Their fortunes turned fast. By June 27, they had fought back to .500 at 40-40. By the all-star break, they were 47-42. They won their last eight games in September to finish 93-69.
Washington will make its fifth postseason appearance in the last eight years this week, and the success this season is as satisfying as any. It’s the 12th team in baseball history to rally from 12 games under .500 to make the postseason.
“Early on, it seemed like we were by ourselves,” Eaton said. “You hear it on social media, the MLB Network, everyone around just kind of counting us out. It kind of brought us together as a team. Everybody gelled. We have one of the older groups in baseball. I think it paid dividends. We knew not to panic, to stick to the plan, knowing things were going to turn around. It was pretty cool to see. You have plans in place. You have that one-pitch-at-a-time mentality. But to believe in it, trust in it and then see it work is really cool.”
Eaton turned 30 in December. That makes him older than most big-league players. The average age of big leaguers was 28.9 in the 2019 season. However, Eaton’s younger than many of his teammates.
Washington has the oldest roster in baseball with an average age of just over 31. At 42, reliever Fernando Rodney is the oldest active player in baseball.
“The funny thing is on a lot of teams I might be at the front of the bus, so to speak,” Eat0n said, “but on this team, I think I’m in the front five or six seats. You’ve got guys with 15 years, 12 years of experience. There are a lot of veterans, a lot of guys who have been in the World Series and played in the playoffs, who have done everything in this game. From my standpoint, it’s awesome. In Major League Baseball, especially now, they’re getting rid of the veterans. They don’t see the value in guys who have made the trek before. I think our team, without those veterans, we might not be in this position. You bring in (Gerardo) Parra and Rodney, guys who have been here and done that and have good experience and to be able to follow their lead, it’s huge for me.”
The Nationals finished 2-4 against the Brewers. If they advance to the Division Series, they’ll play the Los Angeles Dodgers, the two-time defending National League champions. The Nationals were 3-4 against the Dodgers.
First, Washington has to survive the one-game playoff. The franchise has never played in the wild-card game. Six wild-card teams have won the World Series since the wild card was introduced in 1995.
“There have been some wild-card teams that have made really good runs,” Eaton said. “It’s about who’s hot, who gets going at the right time. I think some people do get hurt with it. You may win 100 games or 95 games and you play one game and you lose and that’s upsetting, but entertainment runs this business, and the wild-card game is entertainment at its finest. That drama sells. Hopefully, the baseball world is really going to enjoy it and tune in.”
Two young fans who likely won’t stay up for the finish Tuesday are Brayden, 3, and Maverick Eaton, 16 months, the sons of Adam and his wife Katie. Brayden is old enough to understand his dad goes to work “to get hits,” Eaton said, and think it’s pretty cool. Maverick says, “Da da,” when his dad’s on TV but “doesn’t really get baseball yet.”
Both boys help Eaton’s mood on hitless days.
“I went 0-for-4 (Wednesday), and it didn’t really matter because my oldest one wanted to stay up and see dad,” Eaton said. “I hadn’t seen him in three weeks. We have had some interesting scheduling. I said I’m going to rush home and see Brayden before he goes to bed. We hung out on the couch. That’s the part of life I love. Whether I’m 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, it doesn’t matter. He’s happy, and that’s pretty cool.”