VIERA, Fla. - The longest game the Nationals have played all spring was probably also one of their most deceptive. They ripped the Astros' pitching staff for nine runs in the eighth inning, coming back from an 8-5 deficit to win 14-9, and had plenty of players look great at the plate in the process. But if you pull apart the comeback, it doesn't look quite as good; the Nationals got a few hits, Bryce Harper's rally-starting double among them, in part because of an infield that's dried out and blacktop-hard at the moment.
Beyond the offense, which seems to come more easily in the spring than it does during the regular season, there's this sobering little nugget: A team that's basing its entire approach on defense this season isn't playing very good defense right now.
The Nationals committed three errors today, and have made 12 in seven spring games. Harper saved a run with a laser throw in the seventh inning, but he was kicking himself after the game for airmailing the cutoff man and allowing Brian Bogusevic to go to second. And manager Jim Riggleman didn't reach for the it's-still-early line when asked about the errors.
"We haven't played good," he said. "We had a good ballgame over in Tampa going (against the Yankees on Saturday) and we had one bad inning. Today, we had a bad ballgame going, and we had one good inning. We've made way too many errors, period. We've got to clean it up."
Here are today's awards:
Roger Bernadina: Batting first and playing center field, Bernadina had an impressive start to the game, bunting his way on and stealing a base in the first inning before drawing a RBI walk in the second inning. He's hitting .357 so far this spring, and continues to put some heat on Michael Morse, Rick Ankiel and Nyjer Morgan for playing time.
Rick Ankiel: His two-run blast in the eighth inning, which put the Nationals ahead for good, was an absolute bomb to right center. Ankiel has two homers this spring, and could add some pop to the team's lineup if he can prove he's healthy.
Harper: Yes, he could have hit first baseman Kevin Barker with his seventh-inning throw to the plate, instead of firing home and allowing Bogusevic to advance. But the accuracy of the throw prevented Anderson Hernandez from scoring. And then there's what Harper did at the plate, doubling twice in the eighth inning. After hearing a brief chant of, "Overrated," he hit a missile down the right field line to score a pair, and Harper scored after both his doubles, moving to third on a pitch in the dirt on the second one. He continues to look more comfortable in major league games, though he doesn't buy it. "There's no shot I'm there now. No way," he said. "I'm trying to get my swing back, get my arm back. There's many things you need in spring training that can really help you out." As for the chant? "I've been hearing it since I was in college, high school," Harper said. "It doesn't get old, because I love it. I love hearing people say all that kind of stuff about me. I like all the bad stuff."
Garrett Mock: We've got more on Mock's day here, so it's not worth rehashing all the details. But put simply, he needs to show the Nationals something quick. He's going into his final option year, and it looks more and more like he isn't going to harness his impressive stuff. His fastball was flat today, and Chris Johnson deposited one onto the berm in left field for a three-run homer. Mock is likely headed to the minors, and he might be running out of time.
Jayson Werth: The right fielder isn't one of the Nationals' big concerns this spring; he called exhibition games a "formality" in his first press conference this spring, and he's certainly not competing for a job. But he struggled again on Monday, going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, and is now hitting .077 this spring.
Michael Morse: In addition to an 0-for-3 day, Morse dropped an easy fly ball in the fourth inning, missing a chance at a double play and giving the Astros a chance to score their first run on Mock.
What to watch:
Danny Espinosa had a good day at the plate, going 2-for-5 with three RBI. But he made his second error at second base, and has looked awkward on a few balls in the field. He's getting plenty of playing time, and he's showed his ability on a few occasions already - like the strike he threw from halfway in the outfield to the plate on a relay from Morgan yesterday. But he's going to make some mistakes, too, and the Nationals will have to be patient with him.
John Lannan threw in an intrasquad game today, pitching four innings and allowing a run on a hanging slider, Riggleman said. But overall, the manager said, Lannan was "very efficient."
The race for the fifth rotation spot will get more interesting this week, with Tom Gorzelanny making his first appearance in a major league game on Thursday. Yunesky Maya was just OK today, making some good pitches with his curveball and getting out of jams but allowing five hits in 2 2/3 innings. And Mock has all but taken himself out of the running. The Nationals would like to start lining up their rotation in another 10 days or so, meaning for those pitchers who need to show something, the next start or two is huge.
And Drew Storen, who gave up two more runs (one earned) on three hits today, now has a spring ERA of 18.00. He's been throwing more fastballs than usual, though, at the behest of the Nationals' coaching staff to develop his fastball command. Storen took time off from throwing this winter for the first time since he was in high school, and he's already tinkered with his delivery once to reign his glove side in. For the second-year reliever, the results are going to be more important in late March than they are now.
The Nationals travel to Port St. Lucie for yet another game with the Mets. It's the third time they've played New York this spring, and they've got four more to go. One disadvantage of playing in Viera is, the Nationals see the Braves, Marlins and Mets a combined 15 times this spring. That's an awful lot of time for those teams to scout them.
Jordan Zimmermann gets the start for the Nationals. First pitch is at 1:10, and I'll have plenty from Port St. Lucie. I'll also have one more thing tonight - a little information on an occasional series we're starting with one of the Nationals' minor leaguers. If you've got any questions about life in the minors, check back tonight for an opportunity to submit those. Talk to you later!