VIERA, Fla. - At times this spring, the Nationals have looked sharp, running the bases with aggressiveness, getting decent work from their pitchers and hitting effectively enough to make you think they've got a chance to be better in 2011.
You'll have to take my word that that's happened though. Neither of the times they've been on TV have provided much evidence of it.
Their 7-6 loss to the Astros on Friday night, in MASN's second broadcast of the spring, was a sloppy game pockmarked with below-average pitching performances, some ragged defense and a baserunning mistake or two. There were some bright spots, sure, but the Nationals also did enough things wrong to wash some of those out. The mistakes they made behind Livan Hernandez defensively also brought up another point we've discussed at times this spring: Trying to win with a pitch-to-contact staff isn't going to work if fielders aren't on their game.
Here are tonight's awards:
Michael Morse: It's tough to imagine what else Morse could do to prove he deserves to play every day. He hit 15 homers in 289 plate appearances last year; he's got four in 28 this spring, and he's hitting .480. Yes, the Nationals have more talented defensive outfielders. But they don't have anybody that could bring more upside to their lineup. "He's really been like this since day one of the spring," manager Jim Riggleman said. "He's been outstanding."
Jesus Flores: The catcher had a nice moment in the seventh inning, blasting a long drive over the wall in right center for his first home run in almost two years. He also walked once and scored a run as a DH in his first start of the spring. The Nationals would love to know he's fully recovered from his shoulder injury, either to showcase him for a trade or have him ready to platoon with Wilson Ramos down the road. He hasn't been sharp yet this spring, but he helped himself tonight.
Nyjer Morgan, offensively: Washington's presumptive leadoff hitter did some good things at the plate, getting on base twice in five plate appearances, driving in a run with a ninth-inning single and scoring on a wild pitch. He also stole a base, giving him three successful swipes in five attempts this spring.
Ian Desmond: The shortstop, who got off to a strong start this spring, officially appears to be in a funk. He went 0-for-5 tonight, striking out twice, and is now hitting .250 in exhibition games. He also made an error when a ball went under his glove on a play to his left, though it could have easily been scored a hit.
Livan Hernandez: Yes, the Nationals struggled behind him, but Hernandez didn't have good control of his fastball, which forced him to throw 77 pitches in three innings. He said his main struggle was trying to pitch inside to righties; he couldn't get the ball to dive back over the plate late, and he wound up with plenty of ball calls when he missed inside. "I tried to throw the fastball inside, and it's not working, but I've got to continue to throw there," Hernandez said. "We'll fix it in the bullpen. Everything else was perfect. The changeup was working very good, and the slider was working perfect. The fastball outside was good, but inside, it was bad."
Nyjer Morgan, defensively: He had an eventful night in center field, most of it not in a good way. He let a ball bounce in front of him for a hit when he misread it, and had another one pop off his glove on a near-diving catch. Another one landed just beyond his glove near the warning track, and a single turned into a triple when he undercut it on his route. He's looked good at times defensively this spring, but things snowballed on him on Friday.
What to watch:
Ross Detwiler struggled in relief of Livan Hernandez, allowing six hits and two runs in four innings. It's likely the Nationals will let him start in his next outing to get a better look at him, since it's hard to evaluate him when he's pitching in the middle of a game.
Bryce Harper's aggression got him in a little trouble again tonight, when he tried to go from first to third on Ryan Zimmerman's two-out single in the sixth inning. When the Astros tried to get Zimmerman at first, Harper broke for third, but was tagged out by shortstop Clint Barmes. And in doing so, he broke one of baseball's cardinal rules: he made the third out at third base. It was an unnecessary risk, since he would have scored from second on a single on the next at-bat. But Harper is still learning when to dial it back.
The Nationals are back at home - and back on MASN - for a 1:05 p.m. start against the New York Yankees tomorrow. John Lannan will pitch five innings for the Nationals, to be followed by four innings from Yunesky Maya. A.J. Burnett will pitch for the Yankees, who aren't bringing much of a roster west from Tampa, other than Robinson Cano.
Talk to you in the morning.