Martinez on roster, Murphy and Zimmerman (Nats lose 3-1)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - As the clock ticks down on spring training and opening day looms in the near future, the Nationals have a pretty good idea what their 25-man roster will look like.

"We're close," manager Davey Martinez said today. "I won't say we're quite there yet, but we're close. We've still got a few games left. I just want to leave spring training, get to Washington, play Minnesota (in Tuesday's exhibition game) and get through those days healthy and ready to go for (opening day)."

The pertinent remaining questions appear to involve the final spots in the bullpen and perhaps one more spot on the bench. And one of the toughest questions may be whether to use the 25th spot on the roster for a fifth bench player or an eighth reliever.

General manager Mike Rizzo suggested earlier this week the Nationals likely would go with a seven-man bullpen to begin the season, but Martinez admitted today they're still considering the possibility of an eighth reliever.

Solis-Throws-Red-Sidebar.jpgCloser Sean Doolittle, setup men Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler and veteran right-hander Shawn Kelley (despite his recent struggles) all are assured of jobs. At least two of four lefties still in camp (Sammy Solís, Matt Grace, Enny Romero, Tim Collins) figure to make the team. And with Koda Glover and Joaquin Benoit headed to the disabled list, there's probably one spot for another right-hander (Trevor Gott, Austin L. Adams, Christopher Smith).

"I like our bullpen a lot," Martinez said. "We have the three horses in the back end. And we also have guys that stepped up this spring. I'm really happy with what I saw. We'll make a decision on which ones we keep. The biggest thing is picking that seventh or even that eighth guy. We haven't decided yet."

In addition to Glover and Benoit, second baseman Daniel Murphy will open the season on the disabled list, but he does continue to make some significant strides in his return from October knee surgery. Murphy may start getting at-bats in minor league games next week, Martinez said.

The Nationals have offered no firm timetable on Murphy's eventual season debut, but he said he's hopeful that once he starts playing in minor league games his rehab process will speed up considerably.

Ryan Zimmerman, meanwhile, still continues to get his work in minor league games and is not scheduled to be in the big league lineup Saturday. That leaves only Sunday's Grapefruit League finale - plus Tuesday's game in D.C. - for a potential appearance in a major league game.

"We'll see," Martinez said when asked if Zimmerman would play Sunday. "He's a veteran guy. He knows what he needs. He's gotten a lot of at-bats, and he feels good. He likes where he's at. And I'm comfortable with him doing what he's doing. Here's a guy that doesn't really like spring training and has had a good spring training. He says he's ready to go."

Asked specifically if Zimmerman will be in the opening day lineup, Martinez replied: "That's the plan."

Update: A.J. Cole's final start of the spring is in the books, and it wasn't nearly as encouraging a start as his last one. Cole lasted only four innings, giving up three runs on five hits and five walks. He was helped by some defense, most notably Michael A. Taylor's throw to the plate to nail Josh Reddick in the top of the third. He did make some pitches to get himself out of a second-inning jam. But overall, this was a disappointing performance, highlighted by the fact he needed 89 pitches to complete those four innings. Cole's final spring numbers: a 4.85 ERA and 1.62 WHIP, with 16 strikeouts in 13 innings. Martinez said this afternoon he'll be the No. 5 starter to open the season, with Jeremy Hellickson (who is through two innings in Jupiter allowing one run) needing more time to build his arm up. Nats trail 3-1 here in West Palm Beach.

Update II: Hellickson's night is done. He went four innings, allowing one run on three hits and a walk, striking out four. He totaled 69 pitches, which isn't bad given the fact he's behind everyone else and this was his first actual start of the spring. He may not need more than one or two more of these before the Nats believe he's ready. They lead that game, 4-1 in the fifth, thanks in part to Juan Soto's two-run homer. Here in West Palm, they still trail 3-1 in the sixth.

Update III: After Cole's exit, Nationals' pitching cruised along nicely - giving up just one walk and no hits - until the ninth. Gott gave up three hits, but Taylor Jones grounded into a double play between the first and second ones, keeping the Astros off the board. An Edwin Lora single leading off the bottom half went for naught, as Brendan McCurry struck out the next two batters and got Jacob Wilson to loft one to left field. Final score: Astros 3, Nationals 1.

Update IV: Soto notched a third RBI in the eighth as the Nats secured a 6-3 win over the Marlins in Jupiter. Doolittle pitched the fifth, and Grace and Tommy Milone each went two innings. Grace gave up two runs on three hits, including a solo homer by Garrett Cooper in the seventh.

Cole will open as No. 5 starter, but Hellickson is...
Starting lineups: Nats vs. Astros and Marlins

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