VIERA, Fla. - Tom Gorzelanny took a step toward nailing down the fifth spot in the Nationals rotation Sunday, tossing an effective five innings in Washington's seventh straight defeat.
But a 6-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers did little to clarify the center field derby, a three-man competition between incumbent Nyjer Morgan, newcomer Rick Ankiel and holdover Roger Bernadina, who has already lost a chance to play left field to Michael Morse.
"It's a tough call there," Nats manager Jim Riggleman said. "Morse has done such a good job in left that now we've got people fighting for a job in center. ... None of these center fielders are playing themselves out of a job."
A late lineup change by Riggleman took Ivan Rodriguez out of a planned turn as designated hitter (because an American League team was visiting) and put all three combatants for center field front and center. Morgan replaced Rodriguez as DH and hit leadoff; Ankiel, signed as a free agent in the offseason, was in right field and batted second; and Bernadina started in center, moving from leadoff to the sixth spot vacated by Rodriguez. Riggleman explained the lineup switch by saying he wanted to get Morgan the at-bats instead of Rodriguez, a clear signal that he's yet to make a decision and intends to take as much time as he needs to do so.
"I guess we can wait right up until the end," Riggleman said when asked how long it might take for one of the center fielders to separate himself from the pack.
For now, the Nationals are relying on a combination of Riggleman and their front office talent evaluators - general manager Mike Rizzo, assistant general manager Bob Boone and special advisor Davey Johnson along - in addition to coaches and minor league officials to come to a conclusion.
"There's a lot of ideas and I'm going to have to sign off on one of them here, but I really don't have to do it until close to the end," Riggleman said.
Sunday saw no one assume the mantel of frontrunner. Morgan hit a pair of singles in four trips to the plate, bumping his spring batting average to .233. Ankiel fell to .186 after an 0-for-4 day that included two strikeouts. Bernadina has the best batting average of the trio -.267 after a 1-for-4 performance against the Tigers - but sounds just as unsure as Riggleman how the competition will shake out.
"I don't know how that will work. I just go out there and do whatever I can," Bernadina said. "Today I felt good. It's been up and down, but it's getting better, going in the right direction. I don't feel any pressure because what I have to do is on the field, not (competing against) the other guys. Whatever I do, I want to help the ballclub."
None of the Nationals' hitters fared particularly well offensively against Tigers ace Justin Verlander, who worked six scoreless innings, allowing six hits, walking one and striking out seven. Washington's lone run came after Verlander left, when Matt Stairs crushed a pinch-hit homer, his first of the spring, off Ryan Perry in the seventh.
While center field remains unsettled, left-hander Gorzelanny moved closer to claiming the fifth starter's role with five strong innings. Gorzelanny acknowledged that he didn't feel comfortable or have his best breaking stuff, but he managed to get through his third start and longest outing of the spring by allowing two runs on four hits, walking two and striking out two.
Asked whether he had done a convincing enough job to earn his way into the rotation, Gorzelanny said, "I hope so. I felt like I've gone out and done my job. ... I have what it takes to be here, but it's obviously not my decision. I don't know. I've just got to worry about what's next and worry about what I do tomorrow and I'll find out when the decision's made."
Gorzelanny, who had to overcome a bout with walking pneumonia early in camp, has his stamina back and is battling Yunesky Maya, Ross Detwiler and others to be in the Nats' rotation. Chad Gaudin, another competitor for the fifth starter's role, was supposed to pitch in Sunday's game but was sent to the minor league camp instead. Gaudin worked five innings there and appears destined for long relief.
"We don't have that much time left and Gaudin is really doing a good job," Riggleman said. "But I feel like Mike (Rizzo) acquired Tom Gorzelanny, we gave up some players for him. We brought him in as a starter; we didn't bring him in as a reliever. We promised Gaudin he could compete for a starting job, and he's still doing that, but it would be very hard at this point not to have Gorzelanny in (the rotation)."
Sunday's game yielded another Nationals loss, but some standout efforts, so here are the top performers and those who will probably be happy come Monday, when Grapefruit League play continues.
Jerry Hairston Jr.: Filling in for injured third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, Hairston made several highlight-reel fielding plays. He dove to backhand Casper Well's hot smash in the third, then made a back-handed stop of Johnny Peralta's grounder to start a 5-4-3 double play an inning later. In the seventh, Hairston dove to his left to make a nice play on Peralta's scorcher. Versatile guys aren't that hard to find; versatile guys who can field multiple positions in the infield and outfield are a valuable commodity. "I'm getting a little spoiled with what he's doing," Riggleman said, adding that he'll soon give Hairston a couple of games at shortstop.
Alberto Gonzalez: It may be late for Gonzalez to win a spot on the 25-man roster as a backup infielder, but Gonzalez is putting the heat on Alex Cora, who appears to be the favorite to break camp in that role. Gonzalez went 4-for-4 to raise his spring average to .326. Even if he doesn't go north with the Nats, Gonzalez is making himself more attractive to other teams who might want a good glove man.
Stairs: One at-bat, one swing, one pinch-hit homer. That's a dimension the Nationals have been lacking off the bench and the 43-year-old will probably make the 25-man roster as a pinch hitter. Overall this spring, Stairs is 6-for-17 (.353) with four RBIs.
Wilson Ramos/Alex Cora: Two bad throws, two errors on the same sequence in the seventh inning as the Tigers doubled their lead to 4-0. With runners on first and second, Ramos tried uncorked a low snap throw to first to try and nab Ramon Santiago, who had wandered off the bag. The throw got past first baseman Adam LaRoche and skittered down the right field line, allowing Alex Avila to score. On the relay back to the infield, Cora threw the ball past third base and into the Tigers dugout, and Santiago trotted him. Aggressive play on Ramos' part is one thing, but it's got to be a better throw, especially in a 2-0 ballgame and an insurance run at second. "For 6 2/3 innings, I thought we played really good baseball. Then for 2 1/3, the wheels fell off. ... From that point on, everything backfired on us," Riggleman said. "They were errors of aggression, errors of effort."
Drew Storen: The right-hander got out of a jam in the seventh inning by coaxing a soft liner off the bat of Don Kelly with runners at first and second, then gave up two runs in the eighth. His line for 1 1/3 innings: two hits, two runs, one earned. His ERA is at 11.74, down from 12.79. The trend may be encouraging, but Storen remains in danger of not making this club.
Tyler Clippard: Using Clippard on back-to-back days for this first time this spring is part of Riggleman's idea to work him more in hopes of getting results similar to last year, when the righty was a bullpen stalwart. Clippard pitched a scoreless ninth inning, but loaded the bases on two hits and a walk. At least this time he escaped a big inning.
What to look for: If Gorzelanny is the fifth starter, and Gaudin is now in the bullpen mix, the competition for relief roles between guys like Craig Stammen, Collin Balester and Gaudin might be the next puzzle pieces to fit together. All are capable of going more than an inning, a requisite for a guy who will sometimes pitch in long relief. But there's only room for one of them.
Coming up next: It's back to Jupiter on Monday for a 1:05 p.m. game against the Cardinals. The Nationals will pitch right-hander Livan Hernandez and St. Louis counters with right-hander Chris Carpenter. This will be the Nationals' fourth and final trip to Jupiter, the spring base shared by the Cards and Marlins.