WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Jeimer Candelario called it “every Dominican kid’s dream” — the opportunity to play in the World Baseball Classic. He watched when Robinson Canó won MVP in 2013, marveling that the baseball world was able to see that players “from a little island can do really special stuff.”
When Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. dropped out of the tournament with a knee injury, Candelario got the call to fill in. Nelson Cruz, general manager of the Dominican Republic’s team and a former National, reached out Manager Dave Martinez about the possibility. Candelario accepted. But there was one slight hiccup to the plan: Candelario’s wife was pregnant with the couple’s second child, a girl, and was due to give birth soon. Really soon.
“It was a really hard decision for us,” Candelario said. “But at the same time, I talked with my wife and she’s due (Tuesday), thank God. Hopefully, everything goes well and I can go and have some fun and win some games in the (World Baseball Classic).”
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If all is well with his wife and newborn over the next few days, Candelario will join the Dominican Republic team Thursday. He’ll be part of a group stacked with talent, including stars Juan Soto, Julio Rodríguez and Manny Machado and Sandy Alcántara.
When Candelario returns after the tournament, the Nationals hope that he’ll be ready for a bounce-back year. Just two years ago, Candelario led the league in doubles playing for the Detroit Tigers. But last season, he finished with a .217 batting average.
Hitting coach Darnell Coles said he looked back at Candelario’s season a year ago and felt like his focus was on pulling the ball more than he had in years past. Candelario also admitted the shift affected him at times, but said regardless of MLB’s new rules, which include a shift crackdown, he wants to think the middle of the field. Coles believes that approach will keep his barrel through the zone longer.
When Candelario hit a career-high .297 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he barreled up his baseball on 10.3 percent of his swings. Last season, the number was 8.3 percent. Another telling stat is his percentage of swings hitting under the baseball — 28.4 percent. In 2020, that figure was much lower at 21.3 percent; it moved up slightly to 21.8 percent in 2021. Those swings likely led to more pop-ups.
“When you know you could do something and you’re not doing it, it’s really tough,” Candelario said. “But I’ve always said that (you are) gonna have some ups and downs in your career, in your life. You can’t sit and cry. You gotta be a man. You gotta be a grinder to get back to that normal life … if you help the team win, everything’s gonna take care of itself.”
Candelario will likely be the team’s everyday third baseman when he returns. If he does return to form, there’s a possibility he’ll get traded to bolster Washington’s farm system. But early on, Candelario has shown himself to be a strong clubhouse presence.
On Tuesday, as Candelario watched Lane Thomas hit line drive homers from the dugout, he remarked, “He’s a good player, I like him.” A few minutes later, he saw CJ Abrams and Luis García shagging flyballs. “They’re gonna be really good,” he said, “just give it time.”
Abrams said earlier in camp that he and García can learn by watching from Candelario and first baseman Dom Smith in the infield. Coaches are also noticing that impact.
“He’s another coach on the field,” Coles said. “He sees the potential of those young guys and he’s been there, so he understands it. So the lessons that he’s learned, he’s given some of those lessons that it’s allowed them to relax and go play.”
Outfielder Derek Hill — who was among the 15 cuts Tuesday — first met Candelario back in 2020, during workouts at the Tigers’ alternate site. Candelario had been with Detroit since 2017 and Hill since 2014, but Hill wasn’t sure how to approach him.
But one day, Candelario hit a slicing ball to center field. Hill took off to track it down and made an over-the-shoulder catch. Candelario was convinced the ball hit the ground. The two bantered back and forth over the next few days before Candelario finally admitted that Hill caught the baseball.
Slowly, the two bonded. Hill called Candelario soft and likable, once he got to know him. Since then, Hill said Candelario has always been there to give him advice. Fast forward to last month, when Candelario was doing his first interview in the clubhouse in February, Hill walked by his locker to get his attention and say hello.
“He’s outstanding, just character-wise,” Hill said. “On the field, my guy rakes. It’s gonna be exciting to see him in a new park, new jersey and hopefully have an outstanding breakout year again.”