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Jackson Rutledge doesn’t know exactly what his season will look like this year. But at the very least, he’ll get to play some organized baseball—something most minor league players don’t get to say.
On Monday, Rutledge officially became one of the 60 players in the Nationals organization eligible to participate in MLB games during the pandemic-shortened 60-game season. Rutledge, 21, is considered the top pitching prospect in the organization.
“It’s incredible to see and just makes me want to work harder to prove that I belong on that list,” he tells City Paper. “I’m excited to get back into competitive situations and back into the mindset of spending every day getting ready to compete.”
Rutledge, who was selected 17th overall in last year’s draft, has been ready to play baseball since January, when he traveled from his hometown of St. Louis to West Palm Beach, Florida, to start workouts months before spring training began.
He would end up only throwing two innings before the COVID-19 pandemic suspended play in March.
Shortly after, Rutledge returned to St. Louis where he would go to a local high school field hockey field to throw with his dad. “I did smoke him in the shin one time,” Rutledge says. “He still makes fun of me for that.”
In lieu of an actual gym, he squatted with buckets of concrete at his parents’ basement, and when the local pitching gym, Premier Pitching and Performance, reopened, Rutledge got up around 7:30 in the morning to make it to the gym by 9 a.m.
A big lunch—”I can make a good Cuban sandwich,” he says—followed.
“I wanted to be the one who did the most to keep himself in shape,” Rutledge says. “I wanted to be the one that got better during the time off, which I think was hard to do. Definitely put a lot of effort and a lot of mornings where I kind of didn’t want to get out of bed.”
The most challenging part was the uncertainty of when the season would begin again. At various points this year, a 2020 MLB season appeared to be unlikely. Minor League Baseball officially canceled its season on Wednesday.
“I think the hardest thing was just trying to stay ready all the time,” he says. “Because you never really know when things were going to start. We didn’t know if we needed to be ready the next day or if it was gonna be in four months when everything started. [So] this entire time you had to train and compete with the mindset that you have to be ready to go next week, even if that doesn’t end up happening.”
Rutledge arrived in D.C. earlier this week and most likely won’t make his big league debut this year. RotoWire reports that Rutledge is with the team “for developmental purposes only.” Rutledge predicts he’ll be playing “a lot of intersquads.”
The 6-foot-8 right-hander played for the University of Arkansas as a freshman before transferring to San Jacinto College, a junior college in Texas, where he had a breakout season as a sophomore.
He declared for the draft in 2019 and has only played one season in the minors so far, splitting his time last year between the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, short-season Class A Auburn Doubledays, and Class A Hagerstown Suns. In 27.1 innings with Hagerstown, Rutledge finished with two wins and a 2.30 ERA.
“It was just about everything I expected,” he says of minor league baseball. “It’s a higher level of competition … Every night, you have to go out and perform, which is something I enjoy, having to get into a routine and finding what works for you. Because it’s not like college where you’re playing four games a week. You’re playing, most weeks, seven days a week.”
During the modified “spring training” this month, Rutledge will get to interact with some of the best players in the game and potential future teammates. That’s something he had been looking forward to all year, long before the he arrived in D.C. to play baseball in a season that almost didn’t happen.
“I do really just want to get back to competing,” he says. “Whether it’s my own teammates I’m competing against or kind of just competing against myself.”