VIERA, Fla. - The Nationals' final game of the spring, played an hour earlier than their usual home start time so the team could board a plane back to Washington, had the feel of a formality to be gotten through before the start of the real season. And it's probably good the game didn't mean much, because at the end of a spring where they'd played reasonably well, the Nationals saved one of their more ragged games for the end.
Jordan Zimmermann allowed four runs on seven hits in three innings, giving up all of the runs a second inning where he gave up three hits and a walk in a stretch of four batters. Drew Storen gave up a three-run homer to David Wright, Danny Espinosa made an error and Jerry Hairston Jr. and Michael Morse let a ball fall between them.
It all added up to an 8-2 loss to the New York Mets, ending the Nationals' 15-14 spring on a more sour note than the rest of the year would have suggested.
"I know that's the case (that players want to start the season), but that's the case for both teams," manager Jim Riggleman said. "We just didn't get the job done today."
Here are today's awards:
Adam LaRoche: His fourth-inning homer was his first (and only one) of the spring, but more importantly for the Nationals, LaRoche played five innings at first base. He didn't have to make any throws, other than flipping the ball back to the pitcher, but he came out of the game feeling fine. That's a relief for the Nationals as they begin the season.
Tyler Clippard: After an up-and-down spring, Clippard looks to be entering the season on the right track. He pitched a perfect fifth inning, striking out two batters, and didn't give up a run in his final four outings of the spring.
Sean Burnett: He walked his first batter of the spring in the ninth, but didn't give up a run, and finished the exhibition season with a 0.00 ERA in 9 1/3 innings, a year after he struggled the entire spring. "I just came in competing for a job, or somewhat of a job," Burnett said. "The thumb being healthy (after an injury late in 2009), the ball came out of my hand better than it did last March."
Zimmermann: The right-hander said he was rushing through his delivery a little too much in his Tuesday start; he's had trouble with that from time to time, and it causes him to start shifting his balance forward too quickly, costing him some control of his pitches. "Some innings, I catch myself," Zimmermann said. "If I'm a little all over the place to one hitter, I'm like, 'I've got to slow down a little bit, and step back a little bit. That's the only thing for me."
Storen: The first two hits against the closer were bloopers off what Riggleman thought were decent pitches. But that put two runners on for Wright, and the All-Star third baseman launched a three-run homer off Storen. "It started with a single and a bouncer over his head, but you've got to be able to stop the bleeding a little quicker," Riggleman said. "I hate to see anybody give up hits, and he gave up a few hits. I'm sure he's discouraged."
What to watch:
There were a couple moments where the Nationals' roster configuration looked like it was showing signs of growing pains. The ball that fell between Hairston and Morse should have been caught, probably by Hairston, and Morse couldn't track down another catchable ball in left, though he made a nice play later with his back to the infield. And Ivan Rodriguez got some time at first base, where he could play from time to time in later innings. But he struggled with a Brad Emaus ground ball on the right side of the infield, where he got caught trying to decide if he should cover first or get the ball. "He needs a few more reps there, which we don't have at this point," Riggleman said. "He handles everything very well. It's the decision about whether to cover first or go for the ball that's going to be the tough one. The ball that Emaus hit through there is a ball that Danny (Espinosa) doesn't have a chance to get, because it's a right-handed hitter. With a little more playing time there, I think Pudge would realize he's got to go for that one."
Burnett said the Nationals haven't told him or Storen anything about what their roles will be to start the season, and the left-hander said he's fine not knowing how much of the closer's role he'll get. "They'll tell us when the phone rings, and it's probably better that way," Burnett said. "I'm sure we'll figure out after a couple games what roles we're going to be in, but right now, Thursday's a surprise to all of us."
And asked what the biggest difference he saw this spring was, Burnett didn't hesitate. "(It's) veteran leadership," he said. "There's a lot more veterans around here, and there's no more b.s. You play the game the right way, or someone's going to say something to you. Maybe the accountability wasn't here the last couple years, but there are guys that are controlling the clubhouse, and they're not going to put up with anything. You have to play the game hard, and the right way." Later, he added he's seen a few times already this spring where veterans have set younger players straight. "You've seen it done throughout the clubhouse with certain guys - little things said or little things done that were cleaned up," Burnett said. "Where in the past, it might have gone a couple weeks, here, as soon as it's seen, it's cleaned up and not brought up again. More policing the clubhouse is probably better for the manager. It's not Little League anymore. We can police ourselves."
The Nationals head north tonight, and will be at the park for NatsFest tomorrow afternoon. They'll work out starting at 4 p.m., and players will be mingling with fans in various settings throughout the afternoon. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children under the age of 12. And after that, it's opening day, with Livan Hernandez beginning the season on the mound for the Nationals on Thursday afternoon against Atlanta.
Thanks for reading all spring - we've had a tremendous response to our coverage this spring, with record traffic on our site. I hope you've enjoyed the coverage from spring training, and will continue to check back here throughout the season. If you see me at NatsFest tomorrow afternoon, please say hello and introduce yourself. See you in Washington.