Nats’ Alex Call quickly turned failure into success on first career homer

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SAN DIEGO — Before the Washington Nationals’ series with the San Diego Padres began Thursday, Alex Call sat at a high top table in the visitors’ clubhouse at Petco Park, studying pitchers. He looked at heat maps, count-by-count data and video clips of how certain Padres have attacked right-handed hitters like him. Then, for a dose of the real thing, Call left the room and put on a virtual reality headset, his way of seeing pitches without, well, actually facing an opposing pitcher.

Call began using Win Reality training two years ago, back when he was a minor league hopeful with the Cleveland Guardians. Before his Aug. 14 debut with the Nationals, he estimated he’d seen 200 virtual pitches from Padres starter Blake Snell. And on Thursday, he took a lot of mental and visual reps against left-handed reliever Josh Hader, feeling he may match up with Hader in a late-game situation.

That turned out to be a good call. (Sorry.)

In the ninth inning Friday night, the 27-year-0ld outfielder stepped in with Lane Thomas on third. The Nationals led by a run after Hader chucked a throwing error into the right field. Once Call fell behind 0-1, Manager Dave Martinez signaled for a safety squeeze. Hader’s 98-mph sinker was up in the zone but Call only nicked it for a foul ball. Frustrated with himself, he stepped out of the box to check if the coaches wanted him to bunt again, a risk with two strikes but a chance for an insurance run against an all-star closer.

The Nationals wanted Call to swing. So when Hader threw him a middle-away heater, Call smoked it on a line over the left field wall. He floated around the bases, the dugout alive and screaming. It was quite the first career homer.

“When I didn’t execute, there was a lot of things that go through your mind,” Call said after Washington’s 6-3 win. “You have to really just sit back, take a deep breath and get in my normal two-strike mode, which is [that] I believe I’m the best two-strike hitter there is. He’s got to bring a good pitch, so I got a good pitch.”

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Call’s two-run shot capped a strong offensive night for the Nationals’ younger players. Catcher Keibert Ruiz, 24, reached base five times. Shortstop CJ Abrams, 21, was shaky in the field but ripped a two-run single against his former team. Call, acquired in a waiver claim this month, started in left, batted second and added an eight-pitch walk to his line.

When the Nationals promoted him, they were excited about Call’s ability to reach base and make contact in the zone. Those skills helped him post a .945 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in Class AAA this season, leading Washington to grab him with the top waiver spot. With the Columbus Clippers, he walked and struck out at a near-equal rate. With Washington, though — and in a short sting in July with the Guardians — he seemed a bit antsy during his big opportunity. At least until the Nationals arrived in San Diego.

“His first couple days here, he started chasing,” said Nationals Manager Dave Martinez, who has given Call three starts in left field. “We tried to tell him: ‘We know you don’t chase. We know you’re excited because you’re here and you want to contribute. Do the things you’re good at. Get the ball in the strike zone. When you do that, you put the ball in play, and you put the ball in play hard.’ [Friday] was a good example. [Thursday] night was a good example. He’s starting to see a lot of pitches, and he’s making good contact.”

Patience has helped the Nationals beat Hader in back-to-back games. Before Call’s insurance homer, Victor Robles reached with a full-count walk, only the 15th time he has walked this season. In the series opener, Luke Voit hung in until he was hit by a pitch, then Nelson Cruz took a bases-loaded walk that nudged Washington ahead in the ninth. Hader, one of the Padres’ big gets at the trade deadline, has yielded five walks and six earned runs in 3⅓ innings for San Diego, leading to a chorus of boos this weekend.

The Nationals’ bullpen, meanwhile, has pitched 23 innings since Sunday — the second most in the majors over that stretch — and allowed four earned runs, tied for the fourth-fewest. Kyle Finnegan, Erasmo Ramírez, Carl Edwards Jr. and Victor Arano have been in the thick of that effort. Washington’s defense has been a bit sharper, too.

For a last-place team that dealt its top two players at the deadline, this feels more like a short break from reality than the start of an upward swing. But winning late against a contending team, then doing it again, is still good for a group unfamiliar with even quick bursts of success in 2022. And it doesn’t hurt when a new face is chipping in.

“I didn’t execute the pitch before that,” Call said, making sure to recount how he had failed Friday before succeeding in a major way. “But then to be able to come back and … do something even more spectacular, it’s definitely a load off.”

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