Hard work paying off for healthy -- and thriving -- Winker

April 17th, 2024

LOS ANGELES -- Entering Spring Training as a Nationals non-roster invitee, was once again feeling healthy and ready to show what he could do when not being slowed by injuries.

So far, that’s exactly what Winker has done in 2024 -- including on Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium, when he homered and doubled in Washington’s 6-2 loss to the Dodgers. It was his sixth multihit performance of the year, in his 16th game.

“He's been hitting the ball really well,” said manager Dave Martinez. “He’s started really staying behind the ball a little bit. We’ve talked to him about different things, what he needs to do in his approach, but he's been really good.”

A couple of weeks into the season, Winker has looked as comfortable as ever at the plate -- or, at least, since his All-Star campaign with the Reds in 2021. With two homers this year, he has already doubled his total from ’23 with the Brewers.

Recurrent mobility issues in his neck really caught up with Winker when he was with the Mariners in 2022, leading him to undergo disc replacement surgery during that offseason, in addition to a procedure on his left meniscus. The recovery proved difficult, and with back issues landing him on the injured list twice, Winker was limited to 61 games, in which he batted .199 with a .567 OPS.

But Winker impressed the Nats in Spring Training, battling his way onto the roster by hitting .333 with a .942 OPS in 17 Grapefruit League games. And his ninth Major League season is off to a blistering start. Splitting time between left field and designated hitter, he’s batting .373 with an MLB-leading .500 OBP through 64 plate appearances. His 1.108 OPS ranks third in the National League, behind the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts and the Braves’ Marcell Ozuna.

“I feel good with the work I'm putting in,” said Winker. “Obviously, it's nice when you're getting results, but I feel great with the work I'm doing with [hitting coach Darnell Coles] and [assistant hitting coach Chris Johnson].”

Winker’s first-inning double off of right-handed Dodgers opener Kyle Hurt was a solidly struck line drive into the right-field corner. It was his next at-bat, however, that really demonstrated how difficult it is to retire Winker right now. Facing left-hander Ryan Yarbrough in the top of the third, Winker worked the count full before connecting on a curveball left over the plate and driving it a Statcast-projected 429 feet to right-center field. It was the longest home run he’d hit since June 21, 2022, and the farthest drive he’d ever notched off a lefty.

“I got a good prep from [Johnson] and [Coles] for that at-bat,” said Winker. “We got to talk it over. That’s the benefit of [being] the DH, you can kind of talk about guys that are warming up and kind of game plan. It was a good refresher for me. So definitely thankful for those guys. And then, I was really just trying to get a pitch out over [the plate] and put a good swing on it, and it got up and out.”

Winker reached again in the eighth inning, this time by taking a 98 mph Joe Kelly sinker to his right foot -- already his fourth hit-by-pitch this year. Winker was able to take his base, alleviating any concern from his team.

That, of course, is crucial for the Nats, as Winker has quickly made himself indispensable. That was never a given when he signed his Minor League deal over the offseason, though, and it certainly took a lot of effort for him to get to this point.

“I’m proud of him,” said Martinez. “… The injury slowed him down a little bit, but he got back, had a good winter, worked really hard to get in shape, and he looks good right now and he's trying to help us win games.”