WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Max Scherzer was sharp in his spring debut (except for one pitch). Matt Wieters showed off his new hitting stroke (and his faster wheels). And Shawn Kelley had to be absolutely thrilled with his first appearance since a disastrous 2017.
The Nationals’ home opener at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches is off to an eventful start, headlined by Scherzer’s first outing of 2018.
Scherzer retired six of seven batters faced over two innings, striking out three and throwing 17 of 23 pitches for strikes against a Braves lineup that included a few projected big leaguers. His lone blemish: a fastball that rode in on Dansby Swanson (but not enough) and wound up careening off the Astros clubhouse beyond the left field bullpen.
It was a towering home run, but it was the only damage Scherzer suffered during his two innings of work. He proceeded to strike out three of the last four batters he faced, then walked off the mound and got a handshake from manager Davey Martinez upon entering the dugout.
Scherzer’s teammates quickly gave him a lead in the bottom of the second, thanks to a leadoff walk by Matt Adams, then three straight one-out singles by Wieters, Michael A. Taylor and Chris Dominguez. It was Dominguez’s bases-loaded hit up the middle that brought home both runs, with the slimmed-down Wieters racing all the way from second and beating the throw to the plate.
Bryce Harper also made his spring debut to much fafare, with a golden early opportunity for damage. But with two on and nobody out in the bottom of the first, the slugger grounded back to the mound, watching as Scott Kazmir started a 1-6-3 double play. Two innings later, Harper sliced a pitch from right-hander Lucas Sims down the left field line. Thinking he might have a shot at extra bases, Harper instead was disappointed when Dustin Peterson chased down the ball and made a diving catch near the foul line.
Kelley, meanwhile, replaced Scherzer on the mound for the top of the third and made a nice positive statement in his first appearance of 2018. After getting battered around and then after getting shut down with bone chips in his elbow, the veteran right-hander needed only seven pitches (six strikes) to retire the side. Kelley flashed a fastball that reached 91 mph and struck out Michael Snyder on a sharp 0-2 slider.
The Nationals lead 2-1 after three innings.
Update: They’ve completed six innings now, and the Nats have turned this one into a rout. For that, they can thank their catchers. Wieters capped his strong debut with a two-run homer to left in the bottom of the fourth, further evidence of the work he’s done with new hitting coach Kevin Long. Spencer Kieboom replaced him behind the plate in the fifth and then delivered a two-run single in the sixth to extend the Nats’ lead. Osvaldo Abreu and Andrew Stevenson added RBI hits of their own during the five-run rally that lifted the Nationals to a 9-2 lead.
Update II: The Nats win 9-3, notching their first Grapefruit League victory of the spring.