Nats vs. Braves/Mets: Post-game thoughts

The Nationals finished their last split-squad games of the spring this way -- with players in the visitors’ clubhouse of Disney’s Champion Stadium, showered and ready to board a bus after a 4-0 loss to the Braves, watching on television as Alberto Gonzalez blasted a decisive two-run homer off Kiko Calero 90 minutes south of them in Port St. Lucie. As the ball cleared the left-field wall to put the Nationals up 7-5 on the Mets, a few shouts went up from around the TV and one player yelled, “He flipped him, too!”, noting the celebratory bat flip Gonzalez used to punctuate his homer.

The shot ended a decent day for the Nationals; they got a win in one game and saw enough good pitching performances in the other that they could feel OK, despite only getting four hits in the Braves loss. Jason Marquis made his first decent start of the spring, allowing two runs on eight hits in 5 2/3 innings. Afterward, he said he “felt like Jason Marquis again.” Tyler Walker, rebounding from a lower back injury that bumped his mechanics off-line earlier in the spring, pitched an inning and a third scoreless. Mike Morse, who’s seen a strong spring turn into a prolonged slump because of a nasty flu virus, got two hits against the Braves.

And in Port St. Lucie, the Nationals got three hits from Cristian Guzman, two RBI from Josh Willingham, a pair of hits from Ivan Rodriguez and the decisive homer from Gonzalez, who continues to make a case he should be on the team.

Since starting the spring 0-11, the Nationals are 7-6, and seem, at least for now, to have righted most of the pitching issues that cropped up early.

Here are the awards for today (you voted on the Golden Geese):

Golden Geese
Craig Stammen: In a five-inning, two-run appearance, Stammen provided more evidence he should be in the rotation. He got 10 groundouts against only one flyout, and hit 91 mph on the radar gun. The performance was Stammen in his element, and barring a drastic change, he’ll make his first start of the year for the Nationals on April 11 against the Mets.

Cristian Guzman: With three hits, Guzman pushed his spring average to .294, scored a run and made a few nice throws in the field, though he could have turned a double play on one with a stronger throw. If he keeps hitting, the guess here is he starts the year as the shortstop; the Nats aren’t going to sit him down unless his health gives them no other choice.

Alberto Gonzalez: The infielder went 2-for-4 with the two-run homer that gave the Nationals their winning margin in the 7-5 victory over the Mets. He’s hitting .389 this spring, and is making a strong push to win a utility job away from Eric Bruntlett.

Goose Eggs
Eric Bruntlett: With Gonzalez surging, Bruntlett is struggling at the plate; he went 0-for-4 against the Braves with two strikeouts. He’s not known as a stellar offensive player, and he made a couple of nice stops at second base, but it will be interesting to see what the Nationals do with him. He’s a versatile player who’s an asset in late innings, but Gonzalez could take his spot.

Sean Burnett: The Nats were up 4-2 against the Mets when Burnett took the mound in the seventh inning. He gave up three hits, including a three-run homer that gave the Mets the lead and caused the Nationals to have to force extra innings. Burnett has struggled to hit his spots all spring, and has a 15.00 ERA now. He’s got some work to do to get ready for the year.

Wil Nieves: After an 0-for-3 day at the plate, he’s hitting .237 this spring. Fortunately for Nieves (who?), he’s practically assured of a roster spot with Jesus Flores hurt.

What to watch:
Stammen’s outing put the onus on Scott Olsen to respond with a decent start of his own tomorrow. The Nationals want to have their first four starters set by Monday morning, manager Jim Riggleman said, and they would have to release Olsen by March 31 to avoid paying him his full $1 million salary for the year. Asked if tomorrow was Olsen’s last chance, Riggleman said: “I wouldn’t want to put it that way. He’s another guy that’s made progress -- from Day One, he’s made progress. The line score was not good against (the Tigers), but the velocity was better. He’s just gone up a tick every start. We don’t want to put everything on velocity, because I don’t want him to go out there and overthrow and all that stuff. We’ve got some tough choices to make. I’d like to see him get people out.”

Marquis threw as well as he has all spring, and he attributed that to a game of catch he played after his last start. “It was like, ‘Wow, that felt right,” he said. That led to a small mechanical adjustment with pitching coach Steve McCatty, who wanted him to hold the hip turn of his delivery a little longer so he could stay on line to the plate more effectively. The result was Saturday’s outing, when Marquis was able to get ground ball outs consistently, though his stuff was wavering a little by the sixth inning. Riggleman wouldn’t say he was relieved by the start, and the Nationals have been careful not to make much out of the veteran starter’s struggles this spring. But Marquis wasn’t giving himself the same leeway. “You’re trying to find things. You’re allowed that luxury (as a veteran),” he said. “But at the same, you don’t want to embarrass yourself when you’re out on the mound.”

Up next:
The Nationals return home for their penultimate home game of the spring against the Braves. First pitch is at 1:05, and for Scott Olsen, it’s the most important start of the spring. We’ll have the live thread back tomorrow -- thanks to everyone watching the Mets game who helped out with updates in today’s thread and on Twitter -- it was nice to have live stuff from both games.

Audio from the day is here. I’ll have another blog post or two later tonight. Talk to you later!