Significant decisions on bullpen likely coming soon

VIERA, Fla. - The Nationals have split-squad games on tap today, kind of an unconventional thing to have this late in the spring, but not something of their doing. Major League Baseball sets the spring training schedule, and with 15 teams training in Florida, somebody has to either go split-squad or get the day off every day in March.

Some of the Nats will be hosting the Braves at Space Coast Stadium this afternoon at 1:05 p.m. on MASN, with Gio Gonzalez on the mound. The other Nats will be traveling to Port St. Lucie to face the Mets at the same time, with Yusmeiro Petit getting the start.

Burnett Red Throwing wide.jpgThe timing of this has forced the Nationals to delay some of their roster cuts. They need two rosters of players just to get through the day, so it didn't make much sense to cut several guys in recent days and then have to bring them back up from minor league camp just to get through this day.

So logic suggests there could be some moves coming either this evening or Monday morning.

At the same time, the Nationals still are sorting out a couple of their toughest roster decisions: the final spot on the bench and the final two spots in their bullpen.

Can a player's performance in these last few days of exhibition games actually seal or destroy his chance of making the club, or does the team look more at the big picture?

"You certainly want to look at the bigger picture," manager Dusty Baker said Saturday in Jupiter. "But, I mean, if we had our minds made up, we would've said so by now. Evidently, it's important down to the wire. If you can't handle this pressure for a job, competition for a job, how are you gonna handle the pressure in September or in the World Series or playoffs?"

So these last few games do matter, especially for the host of relief pitchers still duking it out with one another to make the club. There are probably two spots still available - Jonathan Papelbon, Shawn Kelley, Felipe Rivero, Oliver Perez and Petit are pretty much locks to make it - and a whole lot of guys in the mix.

The Nationals have some young, promising relievers in Blake Treinen, Trevor Gott and Rafael Martin trying to force their way in. They also have some experienced guys in camp on minor league contracts, for whom they're running out of time to evaluate.

Sean Burnett, Matt Belisle, Nick Masset and Aaron Laffey all fall into the latter category. Burnett continues to stand out in his attempted return from a second Tommy John surgery, having yet to surrender a run in seven appearances this spring. Masset has allowed five runs (four earned) in 8 1/3 innings. Laffey walked the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth Saturday but got out of the jam to preserve the Nationals' 7-0 victory over St. Louis and otherwise sports a 2.57 ERA in nine games.

We've reached the point of the spring where many veterans on minor league deals have the right to opt out of their contracts, become free agents and try to sign elsewhere. From the above group of relievers, Belisle is eligible to opt out as soon as today.

The right-hander is trying not to think about that.

"That's something I can't control," he said after pitching a scoreless inning Saturday in Jupiter. "I have to get on the bus, go to bed and report tomorrow. I've never been in these situations. It's so different for me. All I know is how to prepare for another season."

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