KISSIMMEE, Fla. - The Nationals and Astros never seem to play games that a) are clean or b) follow a discernable plot. There always seems to be some twist in them, whether it's a walk-off throwing error by Bryce Harper in spring training, a rain-delayed 10-10 contest that has to be finished in another city or a no-call on a check swing that leads to a game-winning homer.
So, in that sense, Washington's 8-7 loss to Houston on Wednesday afternoon fit right in. An early Nationals lead became a deficit when Jayson Werth threw wildly toward home, reverted back to a lead when Nyjer Morgan homered for the first time in nearly 20 months and ended in a loss when Tyler Clippard allowed five runs in the bottom of the ninth, including a walk-off single to former Nationals second baseman Anderson Hernandez. It was a jumbled mess of a game, and finding any themes in it took some parsing.
"It was like three different games," manager Jim Riggleman said. "We didn't pitch good early, didn't play good early. Then we played real good, pitched good, and we didn't pitch good or play good late. 'Det' (Ross Detwiler) was struggling, 'Clip' was struggling, and kind of everybody in between was pretty good."
We'll attempt to make sense of this one below. Here are the awards for the day:
Morgan: The home run - his first since July 28, 2009 in Milwaukee - was a three-run blast that landed in the pond behind the right field fence at Osceola County Stadium. Morgan also drew a walk and scored two runs, the first one coming after he went first-to-third on an infield single from Alex Cora. The Nationals can't expect him to hit many homers, but if he's getting on base and contributing the occasional extra-base hit, they can work with that at the top of the lineup.
Wilson Ramos: He hit a solo homer in the eighth inning (a blast to right center) and did a good job blocking a handful of pitches in the dirt. Ramos is hitting .286 for the spring, and went 2-for-4 on Wednesday. It's looking more and more likely he'll get the second catcher's spot on the Nationals' roster.
Left-handed relievers: Sean Burnett, who hasn't allowed a run yet this spring, pitched a perfect fourth inning after getting drilled in the leg by a foul ball early in the game. He was supposed to pitch two innings, but the Nationals shortened his outing as a precaution, and gave his extra inning to Cole Kimball. But Burnett has been sharp after his best season as a pro, and Doug Slaten struck out two of the four batters he retired in a perfect 1 2/3 inning stint.
Clippard: In four previous innings this spring, Clippard had allowed three earned runs. He more than doubled that total on Wednesday, giving up five in an ugly ninth inning. He walked the first two batters, and gave up three hard-hit balls that turned into two doubles and a triple later in the inning. Then, after getting two outs, Clippard gave up a single to Hernandez when he ha a chance to stop the bleeding with the game tied. "It kind of snowballed on me. I wasn't able to make the pitches when I needed to, and that's kind of my own fault," Clippard said. "You try not to lose focus, and I feel like I did a little bit today, which is probably the most frustrating thing about my outing. You're going to make bad pitches. It's kind of a wake-up call. I'm maybe taking things for granted around here, and that's not something I can do right now."
Detwiler: It's not that the left-hander was awful in his third start of the spring; it's just that he could have helped himself a lot more if he'd turned in a good performance on the heels of strong outings from Tom Gorzelanny and Chad Gaudin. He allowed three runs (two earned) in three innings, giving up four hits, walking two and exiting after three innings when he ran out of pitches. His curveball wasn't as good as it's been the rest of the spring, and he got put in a lot of fastball counts. "'Det' wasn't sharp," Riggleman said. "He didn't have a good tempo going. He was just a little out of sync - he threw a lot of breaking pitches that were almost there. They fouled so many of them off, he was taking a lot of pitches trying to get an out. He just didn't have the handle on it where he could get a swing and a miss."
Brian Bixler: The infielder has had a strong spring at the plate, but it's been clear he's not the strongest fielder. Playing third today, he made an error in the fourth inning, and missed a chance to scoop a ball that Ryan Zimmerman probably would have had. There are plenty of third baseman who don't make the plays Zimmerman can, but Bixler also had a bad day offensively, going 0-for-3.
What to watch:
The most unnerving thing for the Nationals about Clippard's outing - and he alluded to it after the game - was how he couldn't put things back together after the inning started poorly. There have been plenty of times where the right-hander has struggled and put himself in a jam, only to bail himself out at the last minute; five of his team-high 11 wins came after he'd blown leads last year. That's not a good habit to get into, though, and on Wednesday, Clippard couldn't even do that. He's effectively guaranteed himself a spot in the bullpen with the way he's pitched the last year and a half, and Wednesday's outing doesn't change that. He was scheduled to pitch the ninth inning, but the Nationals had him warm up in the seventh, as well. The two warm-up sessions might have contributed to his bad day. "It's a long day, to sit there and get up (twice)," McCatty said. "It's part of the game. You don't like to have it happen, but it happens."
Detwiler will get two more chances to pitch this spring, and he'll need to be better in both of them to snag the last spot in the rotation away from Gorzelanny or Gaudin, with Yunesky Maya still in the running. He has a tendency to lose the strike zone at times, but the Nationals haven't seen much of that from him this spring. He'll need to get back to pumping in strikes in his last two spring outings. "He wasn't terrible," Riggleman said. "He was OK. He wanted to go five innings today, and we wanted him to go five, but the pitches didn't allow him to do it. He ended up using up all his pitches in three."
And the Nationals did a good job of running the bases aggressively today; they went first-to-third on three singles, including two in the first inning. That's been a big focus for new third-base coach Bo Porter, and it's taking hold this spring. We'll see if it continues in the regular season.
The Nationals head to Walt Disney World for the first time this spring for a 6:05 start against the Braves. Maya will be on the mound for the Nationals tomorrow, with John Lannan pitching in an intrasquad game.
A quick programming note: I'm headed back north for a few days, to start packing for our move next month. When my wife and I moved from Minnesota to Northern Virginia in 2008, she did most of the packing while I went to spring training, and I'm smart enough not to try and pull that twice. But the blog will be in good hands; Viera veteran Pete Kerzel is arriving in town this evening, and will be posting plenty of content while I'm packing. So check back often, and follow him on Twitter (@kerzelpete)for additional updates.
I'll be back in Viera next week, and I'll talk to you at that point. Until then, enjoy Pete's stuff.