PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Six straight losses don't really worry Nationals manager Jim Riggleman, certainly not at this point of spring training. A four-run first inning, Jason Marquis' first bump in the road in a solid comeback spring, doesn't trouble the right-hander. And Tyler Clippard thinks his continuing struggles can be easily enough addressed before the Nats head north.
A 7-4 loss to the New York Mets on Saturday yielded some hopeful commentary from the losers' clubhouse, which seemed out of place considering the Nationals dropped to 10-11, the first time this spring they have been under .500.
"Not to make excuses, but I'm more concerned with how we play, the energy we play with, and we're doing that," Riggleman said. "But I don't like to lose."
The Nationals' fate was sealed early, when the Mets went ahead 4-0 in the first. Marquis, who toted an 0.75 ERA into his fourth spring start, was victimized when Desmond sailed a throw over first base on Jose Reyes' leadoff single - a clean throw might have gotten Reyes - and second baseman Danny Espinosa couldn't handle Desmond's feed on what might have been an inning-ending double play off the bat of David Wright.
When things started spinning out of control after Marquis walked in a run with the bases loaded for a 2-0 Mets lead, catcher Ivan Rodriguez visited the mound to calm Marquis down.
"Pudge came out and said, 'Hey, forget about everything else and (I'll) put a target down and throw to the target.' It put me more at ease because I was really fighting myself out on the mound just to make things a lot more simpler," Marquis said. "It's spring training."
After his fielders cut down two runners on the base paths to end the first inning, Marquis settled down. He got up to 79 pitches and turned the game over to Clippard with two down in the fourth and a runner on first. But last season's most effective Nationals reliever continued a disturbing pattern by loading the bases on a hit and a walk before Scott Hairston tripled to center over the head of his brother, Jerry Hairston Jr., for a 7-0 lead.
Clippard struck out Lucas Duda to get out of the inning, ending a day that began with a meeting that included Riggleman and pitching coach Steve McCatty. Clippard got a vote of confidence during that confab, which may have seemed hollow after his ERA had ballooned to 15.19 following a disappointing third of an inning.
Riggleman thinks he's figured out how to get Clippard back on track: Pitch him more frequently.
"I feel like the more Tyler worked last year, the better he was and the less he worked the least effective he was," Riggleman said. "So I think we're into that a little bit. Spring training, we're pitching guys every couple, three days and I think he's one of those guys who is either up or in two out of every three days instead of one out of every three. It helps him be sharper with his pitches."
Riggleman pointed to the fact that Clippard could have been out of the fourth by throwing a 2-2 changeup for a strike to Jason Bay. Instead, Clippard missed inside with the pitch and walked Bay to set the stage for Scott Hairston's blast. Both manager and pitcher seemed to think that constituted progress for a guy who, statistically, seems to be fighting himself.
"One pitch," Riggleman said, "changed the perception of how (Clippard) did today."
Clippard agrees that he needs to fix some mechanical issues in his delivery.
"There are certain checkpoints in my delivery that I'm feeling for right now," Clippard explained. "I'm getting there most of the time, but there's times when I'm not. That's where the lack of consistency's coming from right now. Once I can get more comfortable where I need to be as far as those checkpoints that I'm talking about, everything will fall into place after that."
If Clippard seems to be soft-pedaling his issues, it's because he's worked through such problems before.
"I've had spells like this and you saw it last year," Clippard said. "We're trying to narrow that gap between those periods. If I can come into spring training, figure it out now - not the quick fix, but the fix. That's what spring training is for and that's what I'm using it for."
Pinch hitter Jeff Frazier's three-run homer off Oliver Perez and a solo shot by Brian Bixler - the homers came back-to-back - got the Nationals within 7-4 in the seventh. But Washington's inability to do anything against reclamation project Chris Capuano, who limited the Nats to three hits over 5 2/3 innings had already put the visitors in a hole.
Marquis cautioned against reading too much into the Nationals' skid, repeating what's becoming a party line when someone asks about the losing streak.
"You want to have success, more for the mental health than anything," he said. "Throwing up some good games early on can really help with that. You throw a bad one in there and you sit back, watch the film and see what you could have did better and just work to a groove."
Now, onto the notable and not-so-notable performances of the day, the Ker-chings and Ker-plunks:
Ivan Rodriguez: Veteran catcher gets props for wanting to play as much as possible before taking off three days next week to tend to a personal matter. In first inning, he made a strong throw to third, turning Ian Desmond's nice relay from medium left-center into the inning's second out. He may be 39, but the guy's still got an accurate arm and great instincts.
Michael Morse: Not many players can weather an 0-for-13 slump and still have a batting average significantly north of .300 during spring training. But Morse weathered his dry spell and then ended it with a ground-rule double to right-center in the seventh. Never mind that it was off Pedro Beato, trying to make the Mets as a Rule 5 pick. Morse finishes 1-for-3 for the day, his average is at .348 and the skid is now in the past. "To me, I don't believe in slumps. I just believe you're not getting any hits right now," Morse said. "Why not work at it. I kept my composure, I felt good about myself. I made a little adjustment and, next thing you know, I'm hitting the ball again. Hard."
Frazier/Bixler: Frazier never had a shot to make the roster, but he's batting .412 after going 1-for-2. Bixler followed with his solo blast off Perez to increase his spring average to .375 and better his chances of sticking in a utility role. The best way for fringe guys to make an impression is to not waste the chances they are given.
Desmond: A mixed bag from the Nats' shortstop today, but the dubious outweighs the stellar. In the first, after reaching on a fielder's choice, Desmond broke a little too early against a tough left-hander Chris Capuano's good move to first and was easily caught stealing (1-3-6, if you're scoring at home). In the bottom of the inning, he threw high to first on Jose Reyes' leadoff hit, the error advancing Reyes to second. Desmond got the Nats' first hit in the fourth, a solid single to right, but the physical and mental errors are a concern.
Clippard: Late-inning relievers need to get third outs and not let inherited runs score in bunches. Enough said.
What to watch: As more teams make cuts over the next week to 10 days, guys with major league experience will be on the waiver wire, or released and free to sign anywhere. The Nationals' bullpen picture, once thought to be a team strength, has become muddled. It wouldn't be surprising to see a veteran reliever cut by another team be given a chance by Washington late in spring training. That kind of pickup both demonstrates to players and fans that the status quo is unacceptable, and it puts a little of the good kind of pressure on guys who might have assumed they were locks to make the 25-man roster.
Coming up next: The Nationals return to Space Coast Stadium and try to get back to .500 in a 1:05 p.m. game against the Detroit Tigers that will be televised live on MASN. Left-hander Tom Gorzelanny starts for the Nats and will be opposed by Tigers ace Justin Verlander. Gorzelanny has the edge in the battle to be the Nats' fifth starter, and a decent outing could make that decision easier for the Washington brass.