VIERA, Fla. - In most spring training games, there are so many disparate parts - starting players sharing the field with reserves, pitchers working on new deliveries or batters fiddling with mechanics - that it's hard to take much out of the final result or pinpoint where a game turned.
Friday's game was not one of those cases.
The Nationals were rolling along through the first five innings of the game, leading the Atlanta Braves 2-0 after a strong first outing from Jason Marquis and a good showing from Brian Broderick. But when they handed the game over to their relievers - ones expected to make the team, at that - things crumbled. The Nationals allowed six runs in the game's final four innings, falling 6-4 to the Braves.
It's up for debate whether the results mean much, especially after a year when the Nationals' bullpen pitched poorly all spring, only to morph into the team's most vital cog. On Friday, though, some of the team's key relievers were the reason it lost. Collin Balester gave up two runs, and Drew Storen allowed three more in the ninth inning, losing a tie game and stumbling in a close-and-late situation for the second time this spring.
Here are today's awards:
Marquis: He was, in manager Jim Riggleman's words, exceptional. Marquis threw just 24 pitches in three innings, needing just 10 to get through the first two, and worked so fast he had to throw more pitches in the bullpen after he left the game. He did a nice job of getting groundouts with his sinker - six of the nine batters he faced were retired on ground balls - and got some help from the wind in letting the pitch run away from lefties and in on righties. "Obviously, the sinker's my bread and butter," Marquis said. "I'd like to get that working as quick as possible, and get ahead with it. I felt like I was able to command it and get the movement I wanted on it today."
Danny Espinosa: The second baseman went 2-for-4 at the plate, smoking a pitch down the left field line for a double and driving in a run in the ninth inning with a single. He also made a nice play at second base in the first inning, snaring Freddie Freeman's grounder to start an inning-ending double play.
Chris Marrero: He had two hits in two at-bats, including an opposite-field single for an RBI. Marrero also doubled in the third inning, looking faster on the bases than he has in the past, and made a couple solid plays at first base. The Nationals still want him to get better in the field, but he's clearly made some progress, and the work he put in to get in better shape this offseason was showing up today.
Storen: He's pitched in the ninth inning during both of his outings this spring, and has been roughed up in both of them. If you were so inclined, you could read something into that about Storen's readiness for the closer's role, though it's probably too early to make many conclusions about the results. He'll continue to get chances to pitch in those situations, but it's a little unnerving that he's been hit around in two ninth innings. The pitch that's giving Storen trouble right now is his slider; he hasn't been able to hit spots with it, and is giving up runs when he lets it hang over the plate. "I'm probably trying to do too much with it, and that's what I tend to do when I hang it," Storen said. "It's probably just a matter of getting a feel for it and working down in the zone."
Balester: In his second appearance of the spring, he gave up two hits and a walk, allowing two runs and letting the Braves tie the game. Balester was impressive at the end of last season, and is getting some early work while the Nationals try to get Elvin Ramirez and Henry Rodriguez up to speed. It would serve him well to bounce back from this outing and take advantage of the chance to make an impression while Ramirez and Rodriguez are working on back fields after arriving late because of visa issues.
Bryce Harper: The 18-year-old entered the game in the seventh inning, and looked more like a teenager than he has at any point this week. He struck out in the eighth inning against lefty Brett Oberholtzer, made a poor throw home in the ninth inning that gave Jesus Flores no chance at a play at the plate on the Braves' go-ahead run, and misjudged a wind-aided double later in the inning, allowing another run to score when he strayed too close to the wall and was in poor position to play the carom. Harper is hitting .125 with three strikeouts. He got another tough matchup with a lefty in Oberholtzer, and looked overmatched against a breaking ball again. "That's why (the lefties) are in there - they can get left-handers out on the outer half of the plate with a breaking ball," Riggleman said. "Wherever he plays this year, he's going to see those. But the other challenges he's faced, he's always met and exceeded those challenges. So we think it's a good learning process."
What to watch:
It was a bad day for Storen and Harper, two of the Nationals' three first-rounders in 2009 and 2010 (but on the bright side, I think it was an uneventful day for Stephen Strasburg). Storen was stewing about his slider after the game, and will probably continue analyzing today's game for a while. He'll need to right himself by late spring if he wants to make a bid for the closer's role, but the reason the Nationals have other candidates for the job is so Storen can work through these problems. "I am analytical, but I can separate it. I just take the emotion out of it and say, 'Here's what I need to work on,'" Storen said. "But it's still baseball. It's still pitching. Even if it's spring training, it doesn't matter. It still eats me up when I go out there and throw like that."
And Harper, who will get a chance to face his childhood idols in the Yankees tomorrow, is getting a pretty good outline of where he needs to improve his game. He's going to struggle with breaking balls, especially against lefties, but that's to be expected. If anything, the early results lend some support to the Nationals' insistence that Harper needs to spend a year or two in the minors to get his game ready for the majors. "I don't think he's struggling. He's hit two of the best balls in camp, really - the single he got, and the wind kept in a ball that would have been a home run," Riggleman said. "But on the other end of it, if he was 6-for-9 right now, I think there would a lot of sentiment from people that, why are we holding him back?"
The Nationals travel to Tampa tomorrow for a 1:05 p.m. game against the Yankees. They're taking along a decent lineup, including Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Harper, but they'll be facing Yankees ace CC Sabathia. Harper won't start the game because Sabathia will be on the mound, and the former Cy Young winner will be a tough enough test for the rest of the lineup.
One other quick note: Outfielder Corey Brown said his sprained left ankle is getting better, though it will still be another day or two before he's ready. He's from the Tampa area, and was hoping to make the trip tomorrow so he could play in front of friends and family. But it will likely be early next week before he's ready to go.
That's it from here today. Talk to you tomorrow from Tampa.