PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - If there’s such a thing as the Dog Days of March, this is it. The Nationals head north Sunday night. They open the season in Cincinnati in one week. They have long since practiced every bunt play and every pickoff move. With only a couple of exceptions, hitters have gotten all the at-bats they need and pitchers have thrown all the innings they need.
At this point, everyone simply wants to get through the weekend in one piece and get out of town.
Which doesn’t necessarily translate into quality baseball on the field right now. The Nationals’ 12-5 loss to the Mets tonight was another in a recent string of less-than-stellar play by a club that knows nothing is at stake here.
The question is whether it’ll be easy for them to flip the switch once the results do start counting.
“It’s not necessarily a switch,” said reliever Shawn Kelley, who gave up two homers in the bottom of the sixth. “I just think when the real thing starts, and the fans are in the stands, and you start getting wins and losses and playing toward the World Series, there’s a little bit more of a drive there. It’s not that it’s not there in my preparation and working out and getting ready for the season. It’s just getting late in the spring, I guess.”
Kelley, 33, was quick to blame himself for not taking the mound tonight with the “motivation and adrenaline” he needed. And he insisted he’ll bring it Saturday in his final scheduled appearance of the spring.
But he’s probably not alone right now in the Nationals clubhouse in lacking a certain competitive drive. This veteran team just has to believe it will be there when the lights come on for real.
“Get all the bugs out now,” manager Davey Martinez said. “That’s why we have spring training.”
It had been a fairly productive spring for Tanner Roark up to this point. He had made five starts and allowed a total of six earned runs. He was pleased with a tweak to his delivery he made, one in which he has drastically simplified his windup to include as little movement as possible.
But then came the bottom of the fourth inning tonight at First Data Field. After cruising through three scoreless innings, Roark came undone. He served up homers to Yoenis Céspedes and Jay Bruce. He gave up four singles and a double, plus a walk and a hit-by-pitch. By the time Martinez walked to the mound to take the ball out of his hand, Roark had thrown 81 total pitches in only 3 2/3 innings, with nine runs having crossed the plate.
“I don’t like to do that, ever, even in spring training,” Roark said. “But it happens. Granted, I made mistakes and they took advantage of it.”
Roark was less concerned about the results in the calamitous fourth inning than he was about his struggles to keep the ball down while pitching out of the stretch. That’s something he intends to work on between now and when he makes his season debut April 2 in Atlanta. (He’ll stay back in Florida and start a minor league game Tuesday, then rejoin his teammates in Cincinnati for the opener.)
“In my windup, everything was coming out clean and nice,” he said. “I felt relaxed. Even when I came out of the game and now, I feel good. Even in that long inning, I felt good. It’s just out of my stretch, the ball was up a little bit. And that’s what I’ve got to work on, just that tiny little bit of getting out in front just a little bit more, and I’ll be good.”
Like everyone else in a Nationals uniform, Roark is banking on everything coming together once the Dog Days of March are over and the Real Days of April are upon them.