Nationals head home healthy, with most questions answered

FORT MYERS, Fla. - They arrived in Florida nearly seven weeks ago, knowing this would be a longer than normal spring because of the World Baseball Classic. And when they walked out of JetBlue Park late this afternoon and boarded a bus for Southwest Florida International Airport, they knew they were heading north at long last.

There are still things to be done before they can take the field for opening day - Friday's exhibition (weather permitting) against the Red Sox at Nationals Park, then Saturday's exhibition against the same opponent in Annapolis - but the Nationals have officially completed the Florida portion of spring training, and not a moment too soon for the majority of them.

"It feels good to be going home," manager Dusty Baker said after today's 8-1 loss to Boston. "That extra week made it seem long, cause we'd be home already for the start for the season. Yeah, it feels great to be going home. Now we've got to get ourselves going."

Baker wasn't entirely pleased with the way his team played during the final week of camp. They leave Florida having lost three in a row and six of their last eight.

The Grapefruit League standings don't count for anything, but Baker was hoping the Nationals would at least finish with a .500 record in exhibition play. That can't happen now, given their 13-17-4 record.

"I would have liked to have finished stronger, but we've still got two more games ... if we play tomorrow," Baker said. "We need some momentum starting the season."

If you're the superstitious type, skip this paragraph. If you're not afraid, read on. Every time the Nationals have posted a winning spring training record in the last five years, they've gone on to win the division title. Every time they've posted a losing spring training record, they've failed to make the playoffs.

bryce-harper-love-sign-white.jpgWon-loss record notwithstanding, the Nationals did enjoy a productive and controversy-free spring. They signed three veterans to financially friendly contracts: Matt Wieters for $10.5 million, Joe Blanton for $4 million, Adam Lind for $1.5 million. They watched Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg return to form after being less than 100 percent healthy at the end of the 2016 season. They watched Max Scherzer overcome a pesky finger injury and still be ready to start the season on time.

And they avoided significant injuries to significant players, leaving this about as healthy a club as there is in the majors entering opening day.

"My main goal in spring training is to leave healthy," said second baseman Daniel Murphy, who returned to the lineup after missing a couple of days with an illness. "And I think personally I've been able to do that. And as a whole, I think we were able to do that. You always want to be able to break camp with good health, and I feel like we've been able to do that."

There do remain a few decisions to make regarding the opening day roster. There are 27 players still in camp at this point, with a few different possible permutations to reduce that number to 25.

If the Nationals choose to open with a five-man rotation and seven-man bullpen, then they'll need either to release veteran Jeremy Guthrie (the only guy left on a minor league contract) or drop someone else on a big league deal. They would then decide between outfielder Michael A. Taylor or infielder Wilmer Difo for the last spot on the bench.

Or they could decide to keep a 13-man pitching staff, with Guthrie staying as a long reliever and both Taylor and Difo optioned to Triple-A Syracuse.

Or they could get creative with their rotation. Joe Ross, who allowed four runs and eight hits in five innings today, is lined up to be the No. 5 starter and won't be needed until April 9 in Philadelphia. The Nats could decide to option Ross and have him make a start in the minors, keep Guthrie as a long man and then call Ross back up once he's needed.

"We've got to discuss it first, and discuss it with Joe first," Baker said. "We'll sit down and discuss it with him sometime this weekend."

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