Nats vs. Astros: Post-game thoughts

After a brief stay in the win column, the Nationals were right back to losing on Wednesday, with perhaps one of their worst days of the spring. They began it by cutting right fielder Elijah Dukes, released a pair of quotes from team president Stan Kasten during the middle of the day to quash a statement from XM radio host (and former Nats GM) Jim Bowden that the move was made for disciplinary reasons and ended it by losing 11-2 to the Astros.

The ugliest work in the loss was done by starter Jason Marquis, who gave up eight runs on eight hits and four walks in 3 1/3 innings. But struggling reliever Tyler Walker also gave up a homer, closer Matt Capps allowed a run and the Nationals managed just seven hits.

They head into their only off-day of the spring with a loss in which they walked seven batters, struck out 12 times and had just two of their six pitchers -- Josh Wilkie and Luis Atilano -- finish their days without allowing a run.

The live thread from today’s game is here, and audio from the day (including manager Jim Riggleman and general manager Mike Rizzo talking about Dukes’ release) is here.

One other link to pass along: I created a bracket in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge game so you can compete against me and each other with your March Madness picks (Maddy: This was your idea, so get on it!). Games start tomorrow, as you know, so get your picks in here. I’m planning some type of get-together around Opening Day, and we’ll have a nominal prize for the winner there, along with the previously promised bag of Doritos for the winner of the guess-the-rotation game.

Now, on with the awards:

Golden Geese
Willy Taveras: On the day the right field job went up for grabs, Taveras responded with his best game of the spring, going 2-for-3 with a run and a homer in the third inning off Wandy Rodriguez. He can run and play defense, though his offensive numbers leave something to be desired. But Taveras has a chance to make this team, and it’s never looked better than it does today.

Josh Willingham: The left fielder homered to left in the fourth inning, and almost took another ball out on a deep flyout to center. He’s homered twice this spring, and has been hitting the ball hard since he got back from the birth of his son earlier this month.

Derek Norris: The catcher, who’s already been cut from big-league camp but is getting some games with the major-league squad anyway, doubled off Tim Byrdak. And the Nationals’ catcher of the future showed some impressive speed for a backstop coming around first.

Goose Eggs
Jason Marquis: The right-hander, who signed a two-year, $15 million contract in the offseason, has struggled all spring, but Wednesday’s outing might have been the worst. He said he didn’t have a good feel for any of his pitches, and was quick to note that for a sinkerballer, that’s disastrous. He said he would have been more worried about a start like this “four or five years ago” in spring training. “I’ve got three more starts to straighten it out,” he said.

Tyler Walker: After one good outing, the right-hander was back to struggling on Wednesday, giving up a run on three hits in an inning of work. “His back’s been sore. We’ve been working on stuff,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “Veteran guys, you have to give them the benefit of the doubt. But like everybody else, we’ve got to get strike one.” Walker hasn’t done that all spring, and he needs to turn it around relatively quickly.

Daniel Espinosa: The infielder is thought to be one of the Nationals’ best prospects, but he didn’t play well today in a rare trip to the big-league side. He made an error at second base, and went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts.

What to watch:
The big development over the next two weeks -- at least as it pertains to the day’s events -- will be what the Nationals do in right field. Justin Maxwell and Mike Morse are believed to be strong candidates for playing time there, though Maxwell is hitting .103 this spring. The Nationals will likely play a variety of matchups there throughout the season -- or until they acquire someone they think can play every day -- and right now, the majority of the starts are still up for grabs. Dukes’ release also opens up a roster spot and makes it more likely Maxwell and Roger Bernadina both make the team. Ian Desmond could also benefit, though it seems like Rizzo is intent on keeping Desmond at shortstop.

Adam Dunn will try to test his sore back again on Friday after making the trip to Kissimmee today. He said he felt fine during batting practice, but his back spasms flared up again while he was bending down at first base, so the Nationals took him out of the lineup as a precaution. He’ll get Thursday’s off-day to rest and the Nationals will see where he’s at on Friday. Riggleman said if Dunn’s injury had been during the regular season -- or even if the Nationals had been at home on Wednesday -- he would have played.

Up next:
The Nationals have their only day off of the spring on Thursday before Friday night’s home game against the Cardinals. Scott Olsen and Matt Chico will throw simulated games on Thursday, and Stephen Strasburg will make his third start of the spring on Friday night. Livan Hernandez was also scheduled to pitch that day, though Riggleman said he didn’t think the right-hander was going to follow Strasburg on Friday night. First pitch is at 7:05 on Friday night.

In addition to any off-day developments tomorrow, we’ll roll out the first edition of Mike Rizzo’s blog with MASNSports.com. I talked with the general manager on Wednesday afternoon, asking him a few of the things you’ve been curious about, and he’ll have a blog with us once a week throughout the season. Some weeks, we’ll have a video Q-and-A; others, you’ll get a chance to submit questions directly to him. But the first installment will be posted tomorrow.