Washington Nationals catcher Matt Wieters talks about the competitiveness between the Baltimore Orioles and the Washington Nationals and playing in Camden Yards again. (Peter Schmuck, Baltimore Sun video)
Matt Wieters didn't want to go into his first game at Camden Yards as an opposing player with any expectations, but when he walked to the plate for his first at-bat in Baltimore as a member of the Washington Nationals, he had to know quickly that this was far from any normal plate appearance.
As Wieters — who spent parts of eight years as a cornerstone of the Orioles franchise, first through some dark days and then the resurgence that would follow — stepped to the left side of the batter's box, the Oriole Park seating bowl rose to its feet and welcomed him back with a standing ovation.
Even though the parting of Wieters and the Orioles was abrupt — the team never made Wieters a contract offer this offseason before the Nationals signed him in the last week of February — the reunion Monday night in the Orioles' 6-4 win over the Nationals was an organic moment.
The Camden Yards crowd grew louder as Wieters stepped out of the box and acknowledged the hometown fans with a wave. Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman stepped off the rubber to allow the moment to resonate. Catcher Caleb Joseph looked around into the stands and nodded his head in agreement.
"It was great," Wieters said after the game. "It was a good crowd as always here, so I was definitely very appreciative. I wish we could have been on the winning side of the scoreboard, but I appreciate the hand. The ovation, however good it was, it was not going to change how good of time [I had] and [how much] I loved being here."
Wieters said he took his cues from Nick Markakis' return to Baltimore two years ago, when Markakis — not one comfortable with the spotlight — waved his helmet to the crowd and the Orioles dugout to quell a minute-long standing ovation.
"I had a little bit of a precursor when Nick came back and knew that O's fans aren't going to stop until you give them a little bit of acknowledgement, so I just wanted to say thank you for my time here and then get on with the at-bat and get on with the game," Wieters said.
Quickly enough, it was back to baseball, and the Orioles shifted Wieters with three infielders to the right of second base. Three pitches into the at-bat, Wieters grounded a ball to the right side that shortstop J.J. Hardy made a diving play on before throwing to first for the out.
Wieters' joining the Nationals added an extra wrinkle to the annual interleague meeting between the regional opponents, a mostly manufactured rivalry that has been one-sided in recent years. Dating to 2009, the Orioles are 29-14 against the Nationals, including winning three of four games last year.
"I think it gives us a slight edge because he knows their players," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said over the weekend. "We played them four times in interleague last year and they pounded us pretty good a couple of those games, so hopefully he can help us."
There's no doubt that there are few people outside the organization who more know about Orioles players, the team's way of doing things or manager Buck Showalter's thinking than Wieters. For many years, he was one of Showalter's most trusted players and one of the clubhouse's biggest veteran presences.
So Wieters brought plenty of information on the Orioles to the Nationals. Asked whether he could provide his new teammates with a scouting report on Monday's starter, Kevin Gausman, Wieters laughed.
"I can give them a few tips but he's still got a pretty good arm with good stuff, so we'll have to get some pitches to hit and not miss them," Wieters said.
Embracing the notion of a chess game, Showalter said he was OK with Wieters bringing a wealth of information on the Orioles, but he said the club did make some adjustments — not necessarily to compensate for Wieters alone — by changing some signs.
"There's not going to be any secrets over there," Showalter said. "He knows every bunt defense, every defense. We tweak a few things in spring, not because of him, but every year you try to throw a little what in the giddy-up so you don't get too predictable. But sometimes it's good that you know that he knows so you can kind of go in the other direction."
Before the game, Wieters seemed tactful to plan out his day out to ensure his return wasn't a distraction. He visited the Orioles clubhouse in the early afternoon to say hello to old teammates and staff, and he had a casual media scrum with local reporters in the visiting dugout well before the ballpark started stirring.
But Wieters couldn't deflect the attention when the Camden Yards video board played a tribute to him, showing highlights from his Orioles career, dating to a fresh-faced Wieters as a rookie, as he warmed up Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez in the bottom of the first inning.
"It's a tug," Showalter said. "Very classy thing the organization did there with the welcome back. Had to swallow hard. I think we all did."
The Orioles then hit three homers totaling 1,215 feet in the first inning off Gonzalez. Joey Rickard hit a leadoff homer, Mark Trumbo added another solo shot and rookie Trey Mancini hit a 433-foot, two-run blast for a 4-0 lead.
Wieters said after the game that the pitch to Trumbo, which was above the letters, was right where he wanted, but the other two pitches to Rickard and Mancini crept over the plate too much.
"It's an aggressive lineup to where no matter where in the count you are, you've got to be able to locate that fastball to make it there," Wieters said.
At the plate, Wieters was 1-for-4 with an RBI double off Brad Brach in the top of the ninth inning to place the tying run at second base with one out. Wieters was hitless in his first three at-bats. In the fifth inning, Gausman struck Wieters out looking on a 97-mph fastball that caught the bottom part of the zone to end a seven-pitch at-bat. In the seventh, Wieters just got under a 1-0 slider that he lifted to center field for a flyout.
Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph, who considered Wieters a mentor, said he called pitches to Wieters differently Monday night.
“When he’s in the box, it’s definitely a chess game,” Joseph said. “OK, [in] a 2-1 count, he usually likes to throw this. Well if he knows that because he caught him just as much as anyone over here if not more, then you have to adjust that. The whole goal for a pitcher is to mess up timing. And for a guy who knows the timing to all the pitches to all the pitchers on the staff, that’s quite a task. … I think it’s more gratifying to get him out than for me to get hits, if that makes any sense.”
Joseph, who tied his career high with four hits on the night, said he received good-natured talk from Wieters behind the plate. After his second hit of the night, Wieters told Joseph, “OK, that’s enough.” After the fourth hit, he said, “I’m going to stop talking now.”
“There’s all kinds of jibber-jabber talk,” Joseph said. “Good, friendly stuff. We’re good friends and hopefully we will be for a long time. Our families are friends, our wives are friends. He’s such a tremendous dude. I wish nothing but the best for him after these next three games.”