LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - You've heard, and will continue to hear, that spring training results mean absolutely nothing and that these games are more of a chance for players and managers to work on specific things and get practice in various situations.
If you need evidence of that, look to the bottom of the eighth inning of today's 8-4 Nationals loss to the Braves, when Nats reliever Luis Ayala loaded the bases in a tie game and manager Matt Williams didn't hesitate to pull an unorthodox move, bringing in right fielder Steve Souza Jr. to play first base, giving the Nats five infielders.
Ayala is a groundball pitcher, and with the right-handed-hitting Phil Gosselin up for Atlanta, Williams felt it was a great opportunity to put three infielders on the left side and implement something the Nats have practiced in defensive drills. The move didn't work out, as Gosselin ripped a three-run triple to right, directly where Souza would have been standing, but the Nats' loss means nothing to Williams. He was just glad he got a chance to try out the defensive shift, which he might eventually utilize in a game that does matter.
"We have to understand our guys and we do well and don't do well," Williams said. "So, stacking the left side of the infield with a guy that throws sinkerballs and he knows where he's throwing it, and against a right-handed hitter that's a young hitter, we figured it was a perfect opportunity to do something like this. We got to see what it looks like. Otherwise, if not, we won't be able to use it in a game.
"It's one of our plays. We've got to work on it just in case we need it at some point. Figured, OK, we'll try it. We'll see what it looks like. It was fun."
Souza played first base for high Single-A Potomac in 2011, so the position wasn't exactly new to him. When he got to first base in this particular situation, he traded gloves with the Nats' actual first baseman at the time, Brock Peterson, giving Peterson (who moved over and essentially became the Nats' second baseman) his outfielder's mitt. In a game that mattered, the Nats would have brought out an infielder's mitt for Peterson, but, well, this is spring training.
"We talked about it in spring," Souza said of the five-infielder play. "It's something we've kind of gone over. I thought it was a good time, in spring training, to work on things where you can kind of get the feel for everything, for who kind of does what, what the pitcher needs to do and what we all do. I thought it was a good time to do it. ... Ayala gets a groundball right there, it looks great."
The Nats got to work on another set play in the top half of the seventh inning, with Brian Goodwin on third and Jamey Carroll on first with two outs. Williams called for Carroll to take off for second on the pitch, and when Braves catcher Christian Bethancourt threw down to second, Carroll slammed on the brakes and intentionally got himself caught in a rundown. Goodwin then sprinted for home, and Dan Uggla's throw was wide of the mark, allowing Goodwin to score on a designed play.
"We're trying to look at everything we possibly can," Williams said. "So if the situation presents itself, we might as well try it so we understand us and what we can and can't do. It was good. Goody could have got a little bit earlier break on it, but the pitch before he was going, so we decided, OK, let's try it again and see if that'll work. That one worked. Eventually. It wasn't the perfect timing but we've got to work on that stuff. ...
"It's stuff we have to do during spring especially early so we can understand it so as it gets later in spring we'll pick our spots if we want to do it. Though we have to understand if we can use it in the season if it gets to that situation."
Stephen Strasburg turned in two strong innings today in his spring debut, allowing just one hit and striking out B.J. Upton on a slider, which is a new pitch for him.
"He was good," Williams said. "Sliders. 3-2 slider. Threw the ball well. Just what we expected. He could have gone another, but we didn't push him today. Look for more next time out. He was good.
"(The slider is) just another pitch for him. The other three are pretty good. So is this one. He's been working on it all spring. Got a chance to throw it a couple times today. Missed with it with it once and then struck B.J. out with it. It was good. It's just another wrinkle. Another pitch off of his fastball that's got really good velocity. And we saw that he can get a lot of swing-throughs with that and can neutralize left-handed hitters. It was good."
Drew Storen also made his spring debut today and struggled with his command early in the seventh inning, walking the first two batters he faced. He allowed a two-run double to Andrelton Simmons later in the inning, before settling down and avoiding any further trouble.
"He was a little pumped up," Williams said. "Ball a little bit up in the zone. He ended up calming down after he threw a few pitches and got the ball back down in the zone again. Just a little pumped up. Leaving it up. Simmons, good hitter, wanted to get a strike, and he left one over the plate and made him pay. He's good because his velocity was good today, first time out. He was alright."
Storen agreed with Williams' assessment of his outing.
"Yeah you just tend to speed up," Storen said. "You get in a game and face hitters and maybe try to throw a little hard. But I made the adjustment. That's the big thing. I'd probably be a little more frustrated if I didn't come back and find the zone. Made the adjustment, got on top of the ball and made a couple good pitches. So that's really what it comes down to at this point."