LAKELAND, Fla. – Three-hour bus rides are less common in spring training now. But every once in a while, they pop up on the schedule to a collective groan from the clubhouse.
The Nationals have grown accustomed to playing a majority of their Grapefruit League games within a 45-minute drive of their West Palm Beach home over the past seven springs. But today they find themselves in Lakeland after a 6:45 a.m. bus departure and ahead of a three-hour trip back tonight.
These long trips usually bring a lot of minor league players, with veteran major leaguers able to stay back and get their work in at the home complex.
The Nats are essentially going with a bullpen game, even though most of today’s pitchers are being stretched out as starters. Chad Kuhl will start the game, with Thaddeus Ward, Anthony Banda, Jake Irvin and Jackson Rutledge set to follow, each scheduled to pitch about two innings.
“These guys are gonna get stretched out,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Irvin, I think, is gonna go two-plus. Rutledge, try to get two out of him, too. Kuhl will get two innings as well. These are guys I want to see, so it will be nice to get them out there and compete.”
Ward, the No. 1 pick in December’s Rule 5 draft, is getting a look as a long reliever and possible spot start candidate.
“I talked to him before about just being a long guy out of the bullpen,” Martinez said. “He can do that, so we gotta get him built up for that. I like the way he's been throwing the ball, he’s been throwing the ball really well. He’s a guy that we knew when we saw him, he's a striker thrower. We liked him. He's got a really good slider. And his changeup actually, working with Hickey, his changeup is really, really good. So we're excited that he's done so well.”
The Nationals do have a fair share of regulars in today’s starting lineup against the Tigers: Lane Thomas, Victor Robles and Keibert Ruiz will all play the first portion of today’s game. Matt Adams, Iledmaro Vargas and Riley Adams are three other veterans that made the trip to get some extra work in against a major league club.
The minor league backups include Drew Millas (No. 30 prospect per MLB Pipeline), Daren Baker, Trey Lipscomb (No. 19), Erick Mejia, Nate Leyva Ochoa, Jeremy De La Rosa (No. 8), Daylen Lile (No. 16) and Jacob Young.
Top prospect James Wood was originally supposed to come as well, but ultimately didn’t make the trip.
“We're gonna try to get them three at-bats down here,” Martinez said of his regulars. “And then we got some young kids. Baker will probably play some second base. We got Lipscomb, we'll try to get him a couple of at-bats. But these guys are gonna play. Riley Adams, who catches, it's tough to get at-bats. I want to get him at least three or four at-bats today, he'll DH. But these other guys will play and get some at-bats.”
With the unique setup of today’s travel roster, the Nationals get the chance to treat half of the game as getting their regulars their work and second half as an opportunity to get a preview of the future, something that intrigues Martinez.
“It's exciting for me. I want to see these guys,” the skipper said. “We work on a lot of different things with these guys and we want to see them go out there and perform. And all of a sudden, now we get the young kids where you get excited about and you want to see how they handle themselves up here. How they handle at-bats, how they play the field. So for me, there's never a dull moment. Right now just getting some of these young guys in, getting them to play, give them some at-bats and see how they handle themselves.”
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