VIERA, Fla. -- While serving as a batting-practice pitcher on the field at Space Coast Stadium on Thursday, manager Matt Williams snuck one pitch past the bat of Wilson Ramos, kicking off a friendly competition. The burly catcher didn't miss another one, putting on an impressive power display that included two blasts off the scoreboard beyond left field and another that cleared the berm in deep left-center.
"I lost," Williams admitted afterward with a big grin.
When it counts this season, the two will be on the same side, and that has Williams smiling, too. Health could be the only thing holding Ramos back, as the 26-year-old comes off a season in which he hit 16 home runs and slugged .470 in only 78 games.
"He's an important piece to our team," Williams said. "You want to be strong up the middle, and it starts with him. So we need to make sure we take good care of him in Spring Training and get him enough at-bats and make sure that his legs are good and try to do that. He's an integral part of our team."
After a breakout rookie year in 2011, Ramos has suffered knee and hamstring injuries over the past two seasons. But he feels 100 percent healthy now. He ran the bases with no pain and no problems while playing winter ball in his native Venezuela, and as he showed Thursday, his legs are plenty strong.
"I'm very excited," Ramos said. "Two years in a row, getting hurt, it's pretty hard. But right now, it feels great. I'm excited to be healthy."
Even if Ramos stays healthy, Williams is committed to keeping the catcher's workload on the lighter side. That means plenty of scheduled days off, especially early in the season, and encouraging Ramos to use those days to maintain his strength and flexibility.
Considering that plan and the fact that Washington recently traded for a solid backup in Jose Lobaton, Ramos likely won't be behind the plate on an every-game basis. Asked if his catcher might repeat his streak of 23 straight starts from late last season, Williams gave an emphatic, "No."
"The perfect scenario in my brain says day game after night game, day before day off to give him two," Williams said. "But the nature of the game is such that that never works. We'll try to do those things where we can give him a couple days off at a time to get flushed out and feeling back to good for his next game."
Nats getting used to new home-plate collision rules
VIERA, Fla. -- On the Nationals' last day of workouts before their Grapefruit League opener Friday, a group of coaches and catchers spent some time on the field at Space Coast Stadium, going over the new Major League rules regarding home-plate collisions.
Introduced on Monday, the new rule is designed to increase player safety by preventing "egregious" collisions between baserunners and catchers. In part, it dictates that runners may not deviate from a direct line to the plate in order to initiate contact, while the catcher may not block his path unless he has the ball. Teams will have the Spring Training season to get used to the rule, the enforcement of which will fall under the judgment of the umpire.
Nats bench coach Randy Knorr and third-base coach Bobby Henley, both former big league catchers, went over some of the finer points during a home-plate session with backstops Wilson Ramos, Jose Lobaton, Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon. The group also watched some video earlier in the morning.
"They were talking with us about the position we have to do during the games," Ramos said. "We are a little bit [confused], because that new rule, for a catcher, we have to block the plate. We don't want that guy to score easy. But right now, the new rule helps the catcher a lot. We need to be out of the runner's line. That's the new rule and we will have to do that."
Ramos feels he still needs to learn more on the topic. It would help if the situation comes up during Grapefruit League play, because as Ramos pointed out, there often isn't time to think at game speed, and so many variables -- such as where the incoming throw goes -- are unpredictable.
"It moves a little fast at that point," manager Matt Williams said. "But understanding the rule and applying it in a walk-through practice is the first step. And then certainly in their fielding practice and their drills and then in the games. It's a new rule for everybody, so everybody has to adhere to it and practice it as well."
Reliever Davis waits for good news on elbow
VIERA, Fla. -- It's been a frustrating Spring Training so far for Nationals right-hander Erik Davis, who hasn't delivered a pitch in more than three weeks after experiencing pain in his elbow while starting his winter throwing program.
Diagnosed with an elbow sprain and placed on the 60-day disabled list on Feb. 13, Davis has only been able to work on his conditioning while most of his teammates go through bullpen sessions and live batting practice as the Grapefruit League season approaches. But Davis hopes to get some good news on Saturday, when he will be examined by a doctor.
"Hopefully everything goes well, and I can start throwing, if not Saturday, then in the next few days," Davis said.
Even if the 27-year-old reliever progresses steadily from there and avoids surgery, the injury still will have set him back considerably. Because he hasn't been able to build up his arm at all, he will need to start his offseason program from scratch, and will be doing in March what the rest of the pitchers were doing in February.
Davis first must be able to play catch without a problem, then move on to throwing off a mound and finally facing hitters. He estimates that he won't be ready to join a team until mid-May.
"It's difficult, especially since I'm trying to break in right now and establish myself," Davis said. "I know the window of opportunity is small in a baseball player's career. I had a good offseason, felt good coming into camp, so it's a little frustrating, but at the same time, there's no use crying over spilled milk. I've just got to focus on my rehab, which I've been doing, and make sure I work hard in here and make sure the season isn't a lost season, so I can get healthy at some point and help this team."
Last season, Davis posted a 3.10 ERA in 45 appearances for Triple-A Syracuse, striking out more than a batter an inning. He also earned his first trip to the Majors, throwing 8 2/3 innings for the Nats over multiple stints and giving up three runs on 10 hits, with one walk and 12 strikeouts.
• Reliever Ryan Mattheus was feeling better on Thursday, a few days after being diagnosed with costochondritis, an inflammation of the cartilage that attaches the ribs to the sternum. The righty has been doing some light running and increased activity in the weight room, "taking baby steps," as he said.
Mattheus will see team physician Dr. Wiemi Douoguih when he arrives at Nats camp on Friday, and he hopes to find out when he can begin throwing and how he'll be able to progress from there.