VIERA, Fla. - With each day Ryan Mattheus and Ross Ohlendorf remain sidelined, Tanner Roark chances of breaking camp with the Nationals - once thought to be a long shot - improve a little more.
Mattheus, a right-handed reliever, and Ohlendorf, the righty who employs the old-school windup and was mentioned as a possibility for either the bullpen or the competition for the fifth starter's spot, have spent most of spring training watching other pitchers make an impression.
Manager Matt Williams thinks both will be able to get back to regular work sometime in the coming week, maybe even in a game. But that might not be enough time to cement a spot on the 25-man roster that breaks camp in anticipation of the March 31 opener at Citi Field in Flushing, N.Y., against the Mets.
Early in camp, Mattheus was diagnosed with inflammation of the cartilage that connects to a rib, which caused chest discomfort severe enough to send him for an MRI. He's been out since, and has yet to appear in a Grapefruit League game. For a pitcher who spent part of last season on the disabled list after breaking his hand punching a locker, the timing was awful.
Ohlendorf has made one Grapefruit League appearance, but failed to retire a hitter March 6 against the Braves. He yielded three hits and two runs before back soreness forced him off the mound. As a result, he's got an incalculable ERA.
Williams wants to use the scheduled off-day on Tuesday to start setting the Nats' rotation, and who ends up in the starting five could have a trickle-down effect on the bullpen, especially with the right-handers Roark and Taylor Jordan battling lefty Ross Detwiler to get the nod as fifth starter. Ohlendorf was briefly in that discussion, but is no longer.
"Baseball's like any other sport in that you need the game situations to really be prepared," Williams explained. "You can throw all the bullpens you want, but you need the game starts and those game appearances and coming out of the bullpen to be really prepared for the season."
In other words, with Mattheus and Ohlendorf not pitching competitively, it'll be hard for either to crack the opening day roster. It's much more possible they could wind up on the disabled list, perhaps staying behind at extended spring training in Florida to build up arm strength before working on amassing innings, likely during a minor league rehabilitation assignment.
Both Mattheus and Ohlendorf will throw sometime next week - probably after the off-day - and Williams acknowledges they've fallen behind the other pitchers in camp. With starters needing to be lengthened out and a finite number of games to accomplish that goal, and with those relievers who will make the 25-man roster needing regular work, there's an innings availability crunch.
"He's set back, yeah," Williams said when asked about Mattheus. "And it is what it is, so we have to evaluate that as we narrow down and are going to select the club. ... He needs to build himself up and get himself going. But it doesn't mean he's not going to break with us."
But it will be difficult. As will Ohlendorf's chances of heading north with the Nats.
The first four rotation spots will belong to right-handers Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister (assuming he's healthy), and lefty Gio Gonzalez. It appears the fifth starter competition is Detwiler's to lose, though none of those competing for that role has had a dominant spring.
In the bullpen, righties Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard, Craig Stammen and Drew Storen, and left-hander Jerry Blevins are assured spots. Assuming Williams goes with a seven-man 'pen, that leaves two spots. One will go to a left-hander, either Xavier Cedeno or Michael Gonzalez. That leaves one relief spot for either Roark or Luis Ayala, both righties.
Because Roark showed last year that he can be equally effective as a starter or reliever, he may have the inside track. That flexibility certainly has caught Williams' eye.
"His versatility within the pitching staff helps," the manager said of Roark. "He can start, he can relieve. He's done the both. That's nothing but a positive for him and his chances to break with the club."
When Williams sets the rotation in the middle of next week, Roark will get some clarity to go along with his skipper's confidence.