Roark strong in spring debut, Ross labors out of bullpen (Nats win 6-2)


Score: Nationals 6, Rays 2

Recap: The Nationals didn't bring any regular starting position players on the 3 1/2-hour bus ride to Port Charlotte, but they still acquitted themselves well in their Grapefruit League opener, thanks to solid pitching and one big blast. Tanner Roark was sharp during a scoreless two-inning start, striking out the final three batters he faced. Joe Ross labored some out of the bullpen, but the two runs he allowed in two innings were unearned. The Nationals scored an unearned run of their own in the third, then took the lead in the sixth on Scott Sizemore's three-run blast off the center field batter's eye. They tacked on a couple more runs in the seventh against Tampa Bay's bullpen to open up a comfortable lead.

Need to know: Dusty Baker wants his team to be aggressive on the bases, and the Nationals looked the part in their first game of the spring. Michael A. Taylor beat out a bunt for a second-inning single, then stole second base. Wilmer Difo scored all the way from second base on a bad throw down the right field line. And third base coach Bobby Henley was aggressive in waving Matt Skole around third on Reed Johnson's sixth-inning single to left. Skole ultimately was thrown out at the plate, but the Nationals did appear to make a statement about their baserunning intentions this season under Baker.

On deck: Thursday vs. Mets in Viera, 1:05 p.m.

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. - If Tanner Roark wants to convince the Nationals he deserves a permanent spot in their rotation, he made the right first impression this afternoon.

Starting the Nationals' Grapefruit League opener, Roark tossed two scoreless innings against the Rays, recording all of his outs either via groundball or strikeout.

"Very good," the right-hander said. "Felt like I was able to locate the ball pretty well with my fastball. Curveball was ehhh. Slider felt really good, tight sharp. Changeup felt good. Not where it needed to be 100 percent, but I'm getting there. I can feel it, so that's a good thing."

roark-pitching-red-sidebar.jpgIt was an encouraging first outing for Roark, who attacked Tampa Bay's hitters in the same manner that made him a 15-game winner with a 2.85 ERA when he last was a full-time starter in 2014.

Making an apparent effort not to try to overpower guys like he did at times when pitching in relief last season, Roark kept his two-seam fastball in the 91-93 mph range, with good downward movement that produced several of those ground balls.

"Just location. Hit your spots," he said of his pitching philosophy. "I tried it last year where I tried to blow it by everybody. Everything was up and down the middle. I wasn't locating. (I need to) try to live down at the knees and let the ball sink."

Roark finished with 33 pitches, 21 of them strikes, having surrendered only one hit (a James Loney single to left-center) and a walk while striking out the final three Rays he faced before calling it a day after the bottom of the second.

Joe Ross, ostensibly competing with Roark and veteran Bronson Arroyo for the final two spots in the Nationals' opening day rotation, made his spring debut out of the bullpen. The right-hander labored a bit more than Roark, needing 36 pitches (27 strikes) to navigate through his two innings, and he did surrender a couple of well-struck balls, including Desmond Jennings' two-run double to the gap in the bottom of the third.

Both runs scored off Ross, though, were unearned, the byproduct of second baseman Wilmer Difo's second error of the afternoon.

With a lineup featuring all reserves and prospects, the Nationals scored one early run off the Rays pitching staff, with Difo singling, taking second base on an error and then coming all the way around to score on another error.

Observations and quotes from Wednesday's victory
After two-year hiatus, Dusty Baker relishes return...

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