LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Every spring training, there are a couple of games that are complete washouts, conflagrations of unimpressive pitching and invisible offense. For the longest time, the Nationals’ 7-6 loss to the Atlanta Braves on Thursday night looked like it would fall squarely into that forget-it-and-move-on category.
What went right? Early on, very little. What went wrong? Until a late rally, what didn’t?
Even the Nationals’ six-run eighth was a combination of their own good fortune and some terrible defense by the Braves, who played hot potato with the baseball while the Nats made like those runners in the old Bugs Bunny cartoon, chugging repetitiously around the bases while the home crowd of 9.209 grew increasingly antsy. The defeat was Washington’s fourth straight.
Right-hander Yunesky Maya served up heaping helpings of both promise and annoyance. He sailed along through three innings, then suddenly had trouble keeping the ball in the ballpark. The Nationals could cobble together only three hits through seven innings against the Braves.Washington had chances to score - putting runners at first and second with one out in the first, and loading the bases with two down in the second - against Braves starter Tim Hudson only to see the veteran wiggle out of trouble and finish with five scoreless innings.
“That second time through the lineup, they got some better cuts against (Maya),” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “They made the adjustment and you got to tip your hat to him.”
Maya threw his breaking stuff effectively and didn’t get rattled when close calls went against him, like the 2-2 breaking pitch that was called a ball right before Chipper Jones’ homer leading off the fourth off a slider. Four batters later, after walking Jason Heyward, Maya left a sinker up that Freddie Freeman crushed for the second homer of the inning. Both shots were to straightaway center field. The next inning, Jones struck again, doubling home a run for a 4-0 lead.
“I fell behind the count and I tried to surprise Chipper with a slider and he hit it out,” Maya said through translator Alex Cintron.
One big inning continues to haunt Maya, who said he feels he’s progressing well enough to remain in contention to be Washington’s fifth starter.
“Everything’s going good. I feel great. I’m making pitches. One bad inning,” Maya said.
While Maya’s frustration came quickly, Washington’s offense struggled most of the night. The Nats hit the ball squarely and right at people for outs. Then, in the eighth, balls dropped, found holes or got kicked around. Adam LaRoche’s two-run double to right-center ruined the Braves’ shutout bid Washington chased reliever Scott Proctor before he could get the third out of the inning. Five hits, two errors and the Nationals were down a run.But Cristian Martinez got the final four outs, retiring the side in the ninth.
Which brings up to The Goessling Game’s relatively famous postgame recap, which usually features “Golden Geese” for players who do well and “Goose Eggs” for players who don’t. With this blog’s namesake back in northern Virginia for the next week - and with his permission, since we discussed this temporary change over Buffalo chicken at an owl-themed restaurant that shall remain nameless late last night - I offer you the Kerzel version of these stalwart awards, “Ker-chings” and “Ker-plunks.”
Rick Ankiel: Hoping to stake his claim to center field, the veteran went 2-for-4 with a walk, reaching base in three of his five plate appearances. He also made a nice grab on Chipper Jones’ long fly for an out in the first. Ankiel was playing shallow, raced back and made an inning-ending catch. Maybe he’s not Nyjer Morgan’s defensive equal, but Ankiel can handle the position well enough.
LaRoche: The Nats’ new first baseman is heating up. He had two hits, drove in a pair and raised his average to .310.
Henry Rodriguez: The hard-throwing right-hander, delayed in his native Dominican Republic by visa issues at the start of camp, is making up for lost time. He tossed a 1-2-3 eighth inning, striking out a pair and reaching 99 mph on the radar gun. It was easily the best of his three outings this spring. The Braves probably weren’t too happy with the pitch Rodriguez sailed over Dan Uggla’s head, or the ankle-biter that almost caught Freeman down low, but the sequence brought an interesting observation from pitching coach Steve McCatty, who noted how a little wildness might be good for Rodriguez because it keeps opponents thinking. “Wildly effective,” McCatty said with a smile, “or effectively wild.”
Todd Coffey: The right-hander had better start pitching better if he wants to secure a spot on the 25-man roster. Coffey went two innings Thursday night, the first time this spring he’s gone more than a single frame, but was tagged for three runs on three hits and a walk, and he surrendered a Heyward homer. His ERA through six outings stands at an unsightly 7.71.
Maya: The Cuban right-hander, whose ERA stands at 3.29, might feel more comfortable starting rather than coming out of the bullpen, but it’s opposing hitters who were feeling quite at home the second time through the order against the Braves. That’s where most of Atlanta’s damage came in Maya’s five innings. If Maya wants into the rotation, he’s got to work on his stamina and be effective through at least a handful of innings. Otherwise, he’ll get to work out the kinks in Triple-A.
What to watch:
The Nationals have not yet named a closer, and Rodriguez’s ability to hit triple-digits on the radar gun could put him into the mix for that job. It looked as if he were trying to take a little off his pitches, which dipped to 96-97 mph, but he insists he was just working on mechanics and not trying to fly open. If Drew Storen isn’t ready for ninth-inning duties, the Nats could do worse than a guy who has a little Nuke LaLoosh in his arsenal, along with a blazing fastball.
Coming up next: Right-hander Jordan Zimmermann will try to extend his string of scoreless innings to start spring training, which now stands at 11, when he takes the hill as the Nationals host the St. Louis Cardinals at Space Coast Stadium on Friday at 1:05 p.m. Second baseman Danny Espinosa, still battling a bruised right foot after fouling a pitch off the top of his foot Tuesday against the Mets, got a second straight game off Thursday night, but may play Friday.