- - Monday, September 10, 2018

As a young boy in Ohio, Adam Eaton had playground battles against an older brother and peers much bigger and older than he was.

“You want to beat those guys so badly. It has helped prepare me for where I am today,” he said.

That “sandlot” neighborhood in Springfield helped foster a bulldog mentality, one that was nurtured while playing at Division I Miami of Ohio before he was drafted in the 19th round by Arizona eight years ago.

Listed at 5-foot-9, Nationals outfielder Eaton goes by the nickname “Spanky” but “Sparkplug” would also work.

“He plays 100 miles-per-hour with his hair on fire,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said after Eaton was acquired from the White Sox before the 2017 season.

Washington fans are just now beginning to see the true value of Eaton, 29, who played in only 23 games last season before he injured his knee in late April while running to first base at Nationals Park.

Then this season he slid awkwardly into home plate in early April, again at home against the Mets, and went on the disabled list April 11 with a bone bruise in his left ankle. He was activated off the DL June 9 and has seen a lot of action in right field since.

While his numbers are above his career average, Eaton is not who is easily pleased — either with his own performance or that of the team.

“I don’t think smooth is the word that comes to mind you when you think about this year for me,” he said, standing by his locker at Nationals Park last week.

Eaton, prior to Monday’s game in Philadelphia, was hitting .299 in 80 games this season with 15 doubles, one triple, five homers and 27 RBI. He had six steals in seven tries with an on-base average of .374.

“He’s a veteran guy, been playing his tail off,” manager Dave Martinez said.

Eaton entered this season with a lifetime average of .284 with 108 steals in 142 tries. He played at least 153 games with the White Sox in both 2015 and 2016.

And he wants to get back to playing every day next year.

“You pick up bad habits on the DL. I am excited about this off-season … and getting things right, especially in the (batter’s) box. It has been a whirlwind for sure,” he said of his campaign. “I want to get my legs under me and get a full off-season in. I am running on fumes. It has been a grind.”

Despite health concerns, he wants to play as much as possible in the final weeks.

The third-place Nationals, the two-time defending National League East champs, entered Monday eight games back of first-place Atlanta.

“You want to win games first and foremost. I want to get as many at-bats as possible. I want those at-bats,” Eaton said.

But he may not get them — or at least as many as he wants.

The Nationals called up Victor Robles, 21, last week and Martinez and has talked all year about getting more playing time for Michael A. Taylor, a stellar defender in center.

Then there is perennial All-Star and free agent to-be Bryce Harper, who has seen a lot of time in center, and left fielder Juan Soto, 19, a rookie of the year candidate.

“We got some young kids up here, and I want to see them play, too. He’s going to play all next week,” Martinez said Sunday of Eaton.

Eaton all but admits Taylor and Robles can cover more ground than him in the center. “They can run like deer,” he said. “I think the perception is I can’t play effective in center as I can in right. I can play left, center and right. Hopefully, that gives (me) some value.”

The Nationals gave up three young right-handers for Eaton after the 2016 season: Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning. Giolito and Lopez had made their big league debuts with the Nationals and have been in the White Sox rotation this year. Dunning, a first-round pick in 2016 by the Nationals, had a 2.76 ERA at Double-A Birmingham this season.

Eaton, a lefty hitter, is under team control for the Nationals in 2019. So are starting pitchers Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Tanner Roark, along with position players Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman and others.

“I hear some in the media say our gap for success is small. I could not be more opposite (thinking) of that,” Eaton said. “You have Victor coming in, you have Soto doing what he does. You (can) add a few parts in the off-season and we are right where we need to be. The division we are in, it is there for the taking. We have something to be excited about going forward, whether we sign Bryce or not. The core group of guys here is huge.”

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