VIERA, Fla. - As the spring comes to an end and the Nationals continue to play more of their regulars, their level of play continues to go up. If it's not an omen for the start of the regular season, it's at least a nice place to be less than a week before opening day.
They beat the St. Louis Cardinals 3-2 on Friday night in a scant 2:09, riding solid pitching, sound defense and just enough hitting for their fourth straight win. While that doesn't mean much yet, there are far worse times for the team to be hitting its spring peak.
Here are tonight's awards:
Tom Gorzelanny: He was as good as he's been all spring, allowing two runs in six innings while striking out five. His only mistakes came in the fourth inning, when he walked Matt Holliday and gave up a two-run homer to David Freese. But he had a sharp slider, commanded his fastball well and threw 54 strikes in 77 pitches. "I definitely feel this is a good one to finish out on," Gorzelanny said. "Each outing got better, and this was a good one to end on."
Drew Storen: He cruised through the ninth inning, getting a pair of called strikeouts on sliders that broke back over the plate. Storen's fastball set that up, and he said his stuff was as good as in his last outing on March 22, when he pitched a 1-2-3 ninth against Houston. "(The pitches) kind of come together," Storen said. "The ability to get on top of the fastball, command it down in the zone, when I do that, it gives me the ability to make my slider move a little bit more."
Wilson Ramos: The catcher went 3-for-4, scoring a sixth-inning run from second on Roger Bernadina's single to shallow center.
Jerry Hairston Jr.: Hairston has the team made as a utility player, but he's only hitting .174 this spring. He went 0-for-4 tonight, leaving three men on base.
Jayson Werth: He went 0-for-3, striking out twice and lowering his spring average to .244.
What to watch:
Storen is ending his up-and-down spring on a good note, but the way the Nationals are approaching the ninth inning doesn't seem to have changed much. Manager Jim Riggleman said at this point, the Nationals would use Storen and Sean Burnett in tandem. "If there were a couple lefties up and then a righty, I'd probably start the inning with Burnett and then go to Storen. If it was a couple righties and then a lefty, I'd probably go to Storen and let him run with it," Riggleman said. "It really depends on what happens in the eighth. If you're winning in the seventh and eighth, and you felt like, 'My best chance to get out of this is using one of those guys,' then we need to be able to use them. Sometimes the save comes in the seventh or the eighth." Interestingly, Burnett actually fared better against righties than Storen did last year, using a nasty slider to hold them to a .487 OPS, and Storen was better against lefties than Burnett. Neither pitcher projects into conventional platoon situations, but the Nationals at least have options.
Ryan Zimmerman, playing for the first time in 11 days, went 0-for-3 at the plate, but came out of the game fine. He made an overhanded throw to get Kyle Lohse on the first grounder he saw.
And Chad Gaudin, who will be the team's long reliever, pitched a perfect inning of relief. The diminutive right-hander continues to hang around; he'll begin his ninth season in the majors after being drafted in the 34th round by Tampa Bay in 2001. "I didn't even know I was drafted," Gaudin said. "I was on a senior cruise, and my parents told me I was drafted. I said, 'They don't do that in the Army anymore."
The Nationals face the Astros for the final time this spring, heading to Kissimmee for a 1:05 start. Livan Hernandez will make his final appearance before he takes the mound on opening day.
Talk to you from Kissimmee tomorrow.