VIERA, Fla. - The Nationals have probably played their two cleanest games of the spring in the last two days, winning one when they beat up on a good young starter (the Marlins' Ricky Nolasco) and losing another when they struggled to do more than jab at another good young starter (the Tigers' Rick Porcello). The difference in Monday's 4-2 loss to Detroit was mostly a couple windblown balls that eluded Nyjer Morgan and Jayson Werth's grasp in the sixth inning, but the result is ultimately less important than the team's development.
The instances of that development what make up today's awards. Here they are:
Jason Marquis: The right-hander was probably the biggest disaster of the Nationals' season in 2010, but all spring, he's looked like what the Nationals paid for when they signed him to a two-year, $15 million contract in December 2009. He's thrown just 128 pitches in 12 spring innings, getting quick outs with a sinker he's been able to locate down in the strike zone. On Monday, he allowed his first run of the spring but pitched a solid five innings, heading to the bullpen for extra work in what's become a spring custom for him. "Last year was just bad luck," Marquis said. "It was the first time I really went through anything like that, trying to battle through spring training with my elbow barking. It led to the first three starts (of the regular season) the way it did, no excuses. I should have been smarter about it, but you live and you learn. I'm out to take the ball every five days and do what I'm capable of doing." Said manager Jim Riggleman: "This is what (general manager) Mike (Rizzo) signed that winter."
Ian Desmond: He's been struggling at the plate, but reversed that trend on Monday with a 3-for-4 performance, driving in the Nationals' first run with a blooper to right field. Desmond also stole a base, providing some of the spark the team would expect if he ends up hitting second this season.
Drew Storen: In what both Riggleman and the right-hander called his best outing of the spring, Storen pitched a perfect ninth, striking out a batter and showing better command of his fastball than he has so far. He missed on his first two pitches to Jamie Johnson, but cruised through the inning from there. "It doesn't matter how hard you throw, especially now that guys are starting to know me and know what I try to do," he said. "I really need to execute the pitches a lot more, or I'm going to get hit around."
Todd Coffey: Some of the right-hander's eventful sixth inning wasn't his fault; he got two quick outs and could have escaped unscathed if Morgan hadn't had a windblown double bounce off the end of his glove after a long run. The wind also played a big part in Victor Martinez's homer to right. But Coffey wasn't able to slip out of the inning like he's been able to do most of the spring, and when balls get hit in the air at Space Coast Stadium, they're going to be trouble.
Jayson Werth: The outfielder had a rough day, going 0-for-4 and leaving four runners on base. He also narrowly missed on a leaping attempt at Martinez's home run, banging his glove against the wall as he jumped and slumping against the fence for a second when he couldn't come down with it.
What to watch:
How Storen commands his fastball is a big part of whether he'll get a crack at the closer's job. He's gunning for it, and the Nationals would like him to take over the role (eventually). He said he gained a better feel for his slider today by throwing his fastball more often. His breaking pitches will become more effective the more they're used as change-of-pace weapons, not main methods of attack. For that to work, he's got to keep progressing with his fastball, and he knows it. Storen, like some pitchers, writes tips to himself on the brim of his hat, breaking in a new one every time he comes up with a new theme. Today, he used his fourth hat of the spring, and wrote "down," "precise," and "through the target" on the brim. He's talked a lot this spring about working through his catcher, rather than trying to overmatch a hitter. He seems to be moving in the right direction with that goal. "I've felt really good all spring," Storen said. "It's just the way I went about my business today that I'm most pleased with."
Chris Marrero didn't do anything notable at the plate (he was 0-for-2 with a walk), but he made several nice plays at first and continued to show progress defensively. "I'm very confident with him over there defensively," Riggleman said. "He's really made strides. He's shown some range. He throws the ball well, when that's needed from a first baseman. His hands are soft. He's a very usable first baseman." That, quite simply, hasn't been the case in the past, and if Marrero gets off to a good start at Triple-A Syracuse, he could earn a call-up this year. He's certainly made one of the more lasting impressions of the Nationals' camp.
The Nationals travel to Port St. Lucie for a 7:10 p.m. start with the Mets on Tuesday. Tom Gorzelanny will make his second start of the spring there. Chad Gaudin will pitch in a minor league game tomorrow.
Talk to you then.