PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Nationals left fielder Adam Eaton believes he has perhaps found a positive takeaway from the ACL injury that cost him most of last season. He believes the injury could help extend his career.
Not playing for a year has made Eaton's body feel fresher. He took time to correct some of the nagging injuries he developed during his career that he never had time to fix -- making sure his hips, shoulder and back are all aligned correctly, increasing his shoulder strength and taking care of his elbow and forearm.
With the Nationals training staff, Eaton developed a new stretch and treatment routine to get loose before games. He used to stretch for about 30 minutes to get ready for a game, but now he takes about an hour and a half to make sure he is properly stretched and to get treatment. Even when he is 100 percent, Eaton plans to continue that regimen.
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Eaton believes he will slow the game down and play smarter now, something he was starting to do anyway with age, but this injury will increase it.
"Sometimes you can get away with a lot with your body, especially being young," said Eaton, who turned 29 in December. "I think this is going to give me longevity. Taking a step back, hopefully to be able to take a step forward. Taking a year off with my body and being able to put my body in a better position day in and day out, I think could be huge for me going forward."
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Eaton considers this exchange from Monday's Grapefruit League game against the Marlins. He was on second base when a pickoff throw got past the bag. In the past, Eaton says he would have likely dove back to second on the throw before sprinting toward third and likely sliding into the base. Instead, he knew he could be a bit more methodical getting back to second base before making it to third easily.
"Just little things like that, that adds up," Eaton said. "If you save a sprint or two a game, that's a lot of sprints, going up to 162. I think I was headed that way anyways, but this is just going to accelerate that. I have to play smart, got to play methodical and be efficient as I can.
"Being efficient and methodical, I think you could be a really good baseball player. And knowing when to turn it on. If you gotta go, you gotta go."
Eaton pointed to examples like Kenny Lofton, Juan Pierre and Shane Victorino as players who began their careers playing all out, all the time, but were able to play smarter as they got older while maintaining their speed and the tools that made them successful.
On Thursday night against the Mets, Eaton went 1-for-3 with an RBI and run scored. Thursday marked the first time playing back-to-back games this spring after also starting Wednesday. He has five hits in 10 at-bats and a home run after a later start in the Grapefruit League.
Eaton is now about 11 months removed from surgery to repair that torn ACL and meniscus in his left knee. The Nationals are excited to see what a full year of his presence in the lineup could potentially bring. He was their biggest acquisition last offseason, before he injured himself lunging for first base during a game in April.
It's the kind of costly decision Eaton believes he will now be smart enough to avoid.
"I think that if I would have played the game a little slower," he said, "I probably wouldn't even be in this situation today."