JUPITER, Fla. - For seven innings, the way the Nationals were playing against the Marlins on Wednesday was unquestionably their best effort of the spring. And even after the four runs given up by Doug Slaten and Tim Wood in the eighth and ninth, the game still looks that way.
The Nationals made no errors after committing 13 in their previous six games. They ran the bases aggressively, forcing a couple bad throws at home and taking the extra base on several tight plays. Jason Marquis threw four shutout innings, and Danny Espinosa posted extra-base hits from both sides of the plate.
After a couple games where the Nationals had won in spite of sloppy efforts, they turned in a performance that was easier to feel good about.
Here are today's awards:
Espinosa: The rookie second baseman has looked good at the plate most of the spring, but today was by far his best performance. He went 3-for-3, scoring two runs, driving in four and hitting a home run. That came from the right side of the plate, but the Nationals were just as encouraged with his double from the left side. Only two of his six homers came from that side of the plate last year, and Espinosa has been working with hitting coach Rick Eckstein to improve against right-handed pitchers. "He's pretty legit," Riggleman said. "The left side is still a little work in progress, but he's putting in the time in the cage with Rick. Hopefully, we start to see some more games where he's squaring it up like that."
Marquis: In two spring outings, he's thrown just 70 pitches, working so quickly he's had to throw more in the bullpen after his start so he could build up arm strength. He threw four shutout innings today, allowing just two hits, striking out four and getting eight ground ball outs (including a double play) against one flyout. Marquis said he was fighting his command of his sinker early, but thought his slider and changeup were good all day. Once he got his sinker under control, though, he cruised. "I was finally able to get the sinker down in those latter innings," he said. "I'm just trying to build on each start and really focus on my strengths, and that's pounding the strike zone early with my sinker." He's going to be in the rotation, by virtue of his $7.5 million salary, and right now, he's at least got the stuff not to be a liability.
Roger Bernadina: Batting leadoff and playing center field, Bernadina embodied the hustle the Nationals have been preaching all spring. He struck out his first two times at the plate, but came back with a single to center in the fifth inning. Then, in the seventh, he laid down a nice sacrifice bunt, reaching first when Emilio Bonifacio rushed a throw. After that, he hustled from first to third on Espinosa's single to right. He's not a pure leadoff hitter with the disruptive ability of Nyjer Morgan, but he's done some nice things from the top spot.
Doug Slaten: He allowed back-to-back homers in the eighth, giving up three of the Nationals' four runs. Slaten hadn't given up a run this spring before the two homers today.
Tim Wood: The reliever had a rough ninth, allowing two hits and a walk, as well as the Marlins' fourth run on a Greg Dobbs single to right.
What to watch:
The Nationals continue to play aggressive baseball, and that's particularly true among the players (Bernadina, Michael Morse, Espinosa, Alberto Gonzalez and the like) who have something to prove this spring. As Riggleman said today, every team in baseball is preaching hustle and aggressiveness in the spring, but not every team carries that into the regular season. The Nationals, in particular, were not good at taking the extra base last year. Keep an eye on whether they're able to do that at the start of the season - it's something they're trying to make a tenet of their game. "If word gets out (that we're being aggressive)," first base coach Dan Radison said, "you'll start to see some bad throws." Bernadina forced one today, and Nyjer Morgan did the same yesterday. We'll see if it continues.
And Bryce Harper, who had a RBI single today, is 4-for-5 in his last four games with four RBI. Call it a safe hunch, but I think Harper is going to absolutely tear it up at Single-A Hagerstown when he goes there. He's 5-for-14 this spring. That's a small sample size, but if he was completely overmatched against major league pitching, you'd probably be able to tell by now. To go from there to the South Atlantic League...yikes.
As Harper put it, he's feeling "hitterish" at the plate. This from the guy who brought you "oppo boppo." He's got more gibberish terms than my mom.
The Nationals have a split squad doubleheader tomorrow, taking on the Mets in Viera at 1:05 before traveling to Kissimmee for a 7:05 game against the Astros. Chad Gaudin pitches the home game, and Tom Gorzelanny makes his spring debut in the road game.
Time to pack up and hit the road. My current plan is to cover both ends of the doubleheader, so there will be plenty going on here tomorrow. I'll also have the second part of my Q-and-A with Ryan Tatusko, so check back early and often. Talk to you tomorrow.