VIERA, Fla. - The Nationals are now 3-0 in spring training, a fact that means nothing in and of itself. But the way they've gotten there is sending an early message: namely, that the team's commitment to competition is working.
The Nationals' 8-4 win over the Florida Marlins on Wednesday afternoon came largely on the performances of a few players in heated battles for spots this spring. Roger Bernadina hit a three-run homer. Rick Ankiel, who's battling Bernadina for playing time in left field, added a homer of his own. And Yunesky Maya, like Ross Detwiler the day before, made a strong case about his starting rotation candidacy in a relief appearance.
By the time the regular season gets here, it might not mean anything different. But the competition is fueling some good early results.
Roger Bernadina: Not only did he launch a ball out of Space Coast Stadium in the second inning for a three-run homer, Bernadina dropped a perfect bunt in the fourth inning to take advantage of an infield on its heels for a base hit. "(With) a left-handed pitcher, there's a lot of hits right there through that little gap when the left-hander comes off the mound that way," manager Jim Riggleman said. "With his speed, it's impossible for the first baseman or second baseman to do much with it. It's something he's worked on, and hopefully he'll use that." And though the home run got a slight benefit from the wind, it wasn't a cheap shot by any means. Bernadina said he knew he got it right away, and Riggleman said, "That would have been a homer at Nationals Park."
Yunesky Maya: Flashing his big-breaking slow curveball and throwing a fastball that looked like it had more life because of the curve, Maya struck out three batters in two shutout innings. He threw strikes (16 in 23 pitches) and was in better command of his stuff than he was at any point during his introduction to the majors last year. And, he delivered the quote of the spring so far. Through interpreter Javier Castro, he exclaimed, "The Cuban kid's going to win 20 this year!"
Rick Ankiel: The outfielder got his first start of the spring, scored two runs and homered to right in the seventh inning. The wind was blowing out to right all day, but Ankiel got himself on the board with his other two competitors in left: both Bernadina and Michael Morse have homered already this spring.
J.D. Martin: He got roughed up a little in his inning of work, giving up three hits and a run in the sixth.
Brian Bixler: The infielder committed the Nationals' only error, and struck out in his only plate appearance.
What to watch:
The competition for playing time in left field is going to get very, very interesting. Morse and Bernadina have been the Nationals' two hottest hitters in their first three games, and Ankiel chimed in with his homer. There's been a sentiment amongst a few people I've talked to that if all three players are playing well, center field could wind up being an overflow spot for one or two of them, with Bernadina possibly playing there and Ankiel seeing some time, as well. The Nationals still believe in Nyjer Morgan, and they know he's their best option for a leadoff hitter. But if both Bernadina and Morse are playing too well to sit, and Morgan's 2010 struggles bleed over into the season, they could make a change there.
Keep an eye on Maya and Detwiler, as well; with Tom Gorzelanny being a little behind because of sinus infection, both pitchers have helped their causes early. There's going to be a heck of a fight for the final spots in the rotation.
Lastly, Bryce Harper got two plate appearances today, blasting a 400-foot out to left center in the eighth inning and drawing a walk in the sixth. Had Harper hit the eighth-inning ball to right, it probably would have gotten out, and it was caught on the warning track as it was. But he handled another high fastball well.
The Nationals travel to Jupiter tomorrow for a 1:05 start with the Cardinals. Jordan Zimmermann will be on the mound for Washington.