After weeks of drills and intrasquad practices, Space Coast Stadium played host to a Spring Training contest for the first time in 2014, as the Nationals played their Spring Training home opener today against the rival Atlanta Braves. This was a game that represented all that is awful about Spring Training baseball. It featured no-name pitchers who couldn’t throw strikes as well as reserve position players who couldn’t field, and seemed like it would only end after the heat death of the universe. The Nationals, after letting up nine runs in the fifth inning, somehow came back to win by a final score of 16-15, tying the game in the sixth inning on a bases-clearing double from Mike Fontenot, and taking the lead on an RBI single from prospect Matt Skole. Here now is the good, the bad, and the ugly of today’s game; believe me, there was a whole lot of ugly.
— Jordan Zimmermann picked up almost exactly where he left off in 2013, displaying the trademark efficiency that made him a 19-game winner last year. In two innings, he allowed only a leadoff infield single to Jordan Schafer, a runner he then erased on a double play. All told, Zimmermann managed five groundball outs, then finished his outing with a flourish, getting Dan Uggla to chase a slider for strike three. Zimmermann, of course, has a guaranteed spot in the Nationals’ rotation, and today, he demonstrated the form that makes him one of the NL’s top pitchers.
— Matt Williams has pledged to be far more aggressive on the basepaths than his predecessor, and he got a chance to show off his team’s new style of play today. The Nationals attempted four to steal four bases in the first four innings, including two attempts to steal third; they were successful on all of them. Baserunning is one of the more underrated aspects of the game, and the Nationals were about league average on the bases last year (14th in the league in baserunning runs added), so they clearly have room to improve.
— Denard Span looks to be the biggest beneficiary from Williams’ new baserunning approach; despite blazing speed, he stole only 20 bases last year. In the third inning, Span singled to center. He proceeded to steal both second and third — his steal of third came without a throw on a double steal with Bryce Harper. Look for Span, who went 2-3 with a run scored on the day, to be more aggressive on the bases come the regular season.
— Luis Ayala is one of many relievers in Nationals’ camp with an outside shot at making the ballclub, so for him, every good outing makes a difference. And Ayala had the best outing of any Nationals’ reliever on the day. Entering with the bases loaded and one out in the eighth inning, Ayala promptly induced a 5-3 double play off the bat of Tyler Greene, protecting a tenuous one-run lead. He stayed in the game in the ninth, and got the first two batters of the inning. He gave up a two-out single to Matt Lipka, who then stole second and reached third when the throw went into center field. But Ayala struck out Jose Constanza, ending the game and mercifully shielding us from the possibility of extra innings.
— Matt Purke entered the spring finally healthy, and looking to prove that he has a future in the major leagues. But the 22-year old Purke was ineffective in his first Grapefruit League appearance, struggling mightily with his command. He walked only two, but fell behind several others, giving up four runs on four hits in an inning and a third. Purke, who made it to High-A Potomac last year, isn’t really a threat to crack the Opening Day roster. But he needs to show the ability to pound the strike zone if he wants to work his way back into the Nationals’ long-term plans.
— The Nationals’ defense in the fifth inning wouldn’t have even made a Little League coach proud. The inning started with a throwing error by Mike Fontenot. After a strikeout, Chris Johnson hit a line drive that fooled center fielder Brian Goodwin and fell for a double. The next two batters singled, scoring two. Then Matt Lipka blooped one down the right field line. Michael Taylor misjudged it, let it get past him, picked it up, and threw it well past third. Lipka came around to score — the old-fashioned Little League home run. The Braves would go on to score four more runs in the inning, turning a 6-5 deficit into a 14-6 lead. The Nationals, by virtue of some more ugly baseball, would go on to score 5 in the bottom half of the inning — by the time the fifth was over, it was 3:45 PM, some two hours and forty-five minutes into the game.
— Despite the fact that this was the Nationals’ Grapefruit League home opener, neither MASN nor WJFK decided to broadcast the game. Which meant that if you wanted to follow this game as a Nationals’ fan, you were stuck with the decision to either follow the MLB Gameday feed or listen to Jim Powell and Don Sutton on the Atlanta Braves Radio Network. The two veteran broadcasters did a good job, treating this game with the sense of bemusement befitting the farce that it was. But it would have been smart of the Nationals to put their home broadcasters on the air for the home opener.
The Nationals improve to 2-0 on the spring, while the Braves fall to 0-4. Tomorrow, the Nationals will take on the Marlins at Space Coast Stadium; the 1:05 game will be Doug Fister’s first appearance in a Nationals’ uniform, and will be televised on MASN (WJFK will also be on the call).