LAKELAND, Fla. – Typically, major league regulars wouldn’t make the six-hour round trip from West Palm Beach to Lakeland. But teams have to bring at least a handful of major leaguers to keep the competition level up.
The Nationals only brought three players projected to be in the Opening Day starting lineup: Lane Thomas, Victor Robles and Keibert Ruiz. Part of the reason these guys don’t typically make these trips is to avoid injuries after long bus rides.
Unfortunately, the Nationals couldn’t get out of town without a starter getting banged up. Not as importantly, they lost the game 2-1 loss in front of 4,329 fans.
Victor Robles departed today’s game in the bottom of the second inning after tracking down a deep fly ball from Spencer Torkelson in center field and running into the wall, seemingly where there is no padding. He went down to the ground immediately and tried to get back up, but hobbled around before laying back down.
Manager Davey Martinez and head athletic trainer Paul Lessard went out to check on Robles and attempted to help him off the field before a golf cart came to take him back to the visiting clubhouse at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium.
Robles ended up suffering a contusion on his left knee after hitting a pipe behind the wall. There is no other significant damage to the knee and the Nats are treating it as day-to-day.
“He hit a pipe behind the wall, he'll probably be day-to-day,” Martinez said after the game. “Everything else is good.
“When he ran into the wall, there's a pipe behind the wall and he hit it with his knee. So he's got a bruise on top of his kneecap. Everything else checked out fine. So it's just a contusion.”
Good news considering how much Robles was limping to get off the field.
“I've run out more for him than a player I think I've ever had,” Martinez said. “But that's the way he plays the game. He plays aggressive. Heck of a catch. He ran a long way to catch the ball. So hopefully, like I said, he's down for a few days and we'll get him back out there.”
Daylen Lile, the 2021 first-round pick who missed all of last year due to Tommy John surgery, came into the game in left field, with Alex Call moving to right and Thomas to center.
Robles singled in his only at-bat of the game in the first inning, bringing his spring batting average to .353. He’s now 6-for-17 with three doubles, one triple, three RBIs and only one strikeout.
This is a big year for Robles. After avoiding arbitration and agreeing on a $2.325 million salary in February, he is a sure thing to be the everyday starting center fielder in 2023. But he needs to prove he can still be a part of the Nationals’ future plans.
He only slashed .224/.273/.311 with a .584 OPS in 132 games last year. And now the top portion of the Nats’ farm system is heavy with outfielders, including James Wood, Robert Hassell III, Elijah Green, Cristhian Vaquero, Jeremy De La Rosa and T.J. White.
Ironically exemplified by how he got hurt, defense hasn’t been a problem for Robles. His 12 Defensive Runs Saved last year led the team and helped make him a finalist for the National League Gold Glove Award in center field, the second time he’s had the honor.
Speaking of those young up-and-comers, a handful of them got significant playing time today.
Lile, the Nats’ 16th-ranked prospect per MLB Pipeline, showed his skill set and athleticism at the plate and in the field. He recorded three base hits and a stolen base in his four at-bats: hits to right and left field, and an infield single by beating out a grounder to short. He struck out in his second appearance. He also scored the Nats’ only run in the ninth on Erick Meija’s bloop single to prevent the shutout.
While playing right field with fellow prospect Jackson Rutledge pitching in the fifth, he made a diving catch to rob a hit that would have rolled for extra bases had he not come up with it.
“Awesome, man. Awesome,” Martinez said of Lile’s day. “Kid gets a chance to play and shows all his tools. Played some good defense, got some base hits, stole a base, ran the bases well. So he did a great job.”
Rutledge pitched well in his two innings of work, completing them with 28 pitches and 17 strikes. He finished a 1-2-3 fifth inning with a looking strikeout on a slider low in the zone. The Tigers made more contact in the sixth and put up a run on the 12th-ranked prospect when the leadoff walk came around to score.
Trey Lipscomb, the Frederick, Md., native who was a third-round pick in July, entered to play third base in the sixth. The Nats’ 19th-ranked prospect grounded out to second in his only at-bat.
“When I watch these guys just as much as I watch the guys that are gonna be with us, those guys take pitches, they work good counts, they run the bases well, they play defense. And that matters,” Martinez said of the young prospects. “And then all of a sudden, next thing you know, they're jumping from level to level. And next thing you know, he's knocking on the door to come up here and play for us. So I love it. I love giving these guys an opportunity to play, too.”
Chad Kuhl started the game with 2 ⅓ scoreless innings on the mound. Using his five-pitch mix (two-seam fastball, four-seam fastball, slider, curveball and changeup), the veteran right-hander finished his outing in 30 pitches (20 strikes) to take a nice step forward in camp.
“I think just the main thing is working in my own tempo, obviously,” Kuhl said. “It's nice to just start and go through your normal routine. I think every spring training, you come back in and kind of almost want to relearn, 'Oh, how did I do things?' So I think it just took me a little bit. I think the fastball command was a lot better. My delivery was a lot better, breaking balls was sharper. I just think it was just overall better movement for me off the mound.”
Thaddeus Ward and Anthony Banda also had scoreless outings out of the bullpen. Jake Irvin had a scoreless seventh inning, but gave up a run in the eighth.
But the focus from this long road trip will be Robles’ health and if he can get back on the field to prepare for an important upcoming season.
“We'll keep an eye on him, we'll monitor him,” the skipper said. “Make sure that before he gets out there, we'll put him through some tests. Get him to run a little bit. And then when the trainers say he's ready, then we'll get it back out there.”