Fun Again

Fatherhood helps Maxwell tone down the pressure

Used to be, Justin Maxwell lost a lot of sleep at night as he worried about this and that, the replay of that evening's game running through his mind over and over again.

Now the Nationals prospect patrols the outfields of the Puerto Rican League, where he tries to make up for lost time after yet another season marred by injuries. His 2008 campaign was abbreviated to just 43 games.

Are the Nationals' personnel pleased with his handling of two-strike situations, as they emphasized before he left for the Caribbean? And will the time spent playing the outfield corners create the necessary impression ahead of spring training?

Those questions and many more might have consumed Maxwell in other years. This offseason, however, the former Maryland standout has other things on his mind.

Good things, that is, such as his wife Loren and their newborn son, Jaiden Lenox, who made his debut Oct. 21, just a week before Maxwell had to catch a flight to Puerto Rico to join the Caguas Creoles.

"It keeps the game in perspective," Maxwell said of fatherhood. "It makes it a little easier when I go home at night. (The game) isn't my focus all the time off the field like it used to be. In that regard, it's helped out."

In other words, Maxwell has rediscovered the fun in the game again, and it couldn't come at a more important time in his young career.

Enjoying Island Life

With spring training right around the corner, a new season awaits for the 25-year-old Maxwell, Washington's fourth-round pick in 2005, to prove that he is no longer a health risk and that he remains an oozing-of-tools talent. Who can forget his 2007 season, when he batted .281/.363/.533 with 27 homers, 25 doubles and 35 steals, plus cracked a grand slam in his third big league at-bat?

And now in Puerto Rico, it had been so far, so good.

While the batting average is nothing fabulous, Maxwell has shown power and patience. Through 132 at-bats, he was hitting .220/.400/.455. The stats line included seven home runs (third best in the league), eight doubles and 24 RBIs.

But this is what jumps out: 37 walks against 38 strikeouts. Yes, his timing is back and his wrist is not an issue, a refreshing sight considering his season was cut short on May 19 when Maxwell attempted a spectacular diving catch and suffered a broken right wrist.

"Nothing can substitute live pitching," Maxwell said. "I feel pretty good. The big thing has been my approach at the plate. I did have good plate discipline early on."

He went on, emphasizing that the league affords the chance to face a number of pitchers with different arm actions.

"I'm just glad they brought the league back this year," Maxwell said. "They originally wanted me to go to the Dominican, but they didn't feel like I was ready enough. So I was just fortunate they brought this league back."

Big Fan Of Technology

It's been a long haul for Maxwell, whose college career at Maryland was marred by injuries and whose wrist injury prevented him from successfully piggybacking his 2007 season.

Fortunately, life as a family man created a calming effect. Before and after games, Maxwell hops on a laptop and communicates with his wife and son though an online video conference, and receives up-to-the-minute text messages on Jaiden's status.

"Thank God for the internet and cell phones. I don't now how families did it back in the old days," Maxwell said. "And I know I'm not just playing for myself."

Inadvertently, his time being a dad has helped lessen the frustration of 2008.

At the time of the injury, Maxwell was hitting .233/.367/.459 with seven home runs and 28 RBIs in 146 at-bats at Double-A Harrisburg and would have ranked among the Eastern League's top prospects, something all but echoed by Harrisburg manager John Stearns.

"I thought he was the best power-speed guy in the league," Stearns said. "He's not just fast; he's a smart baserunner as well—a big guy that can run."

By playing in Puerto Rico, Maxwell hopes to demonstrate he can be versatile. At the plate, his two-strike approach has improved, as the righthanded hitter shortened his swing and choked up on the handle.

In turn, he hasn't been afraid to poke pitches on the outer half into right field, rather than watching a called third strike.

Playing the corners has not been a problem at all, as Maxwell, a natural center fielder, uses his athleticism to hunt down flyballs.

But now comes the hard part. He must translate his tools to a full healthy season and, hopefully for Maxwell, a Maryland native, he'll get to play not far from family and friends at Nationals Park.

It's been a year since he took batting practice at the facility in December 2007, when there were still dirt mounds everywhere.

"It definitely would be a dream come true," Maxwell said. "If everything goes well, I'll have fun playing and hopefully I get another shot to see what I can do."

He'd certainly sleep well then.