Thoughts and observations on Nats' 7-2 win over Braves

VIERA, Fla. - Some thoughts, observations and quotes from today's 7-2 Nationals split-squad victory over the Braves in the penultimate spring training game ever at Space Coast Stadium ...

* Gio Gonzalez probably put together his best start of the spring. Yes, he gave up a couple of runs and seven hits over six innings. But most importantly, he didn't walk anybody after issuing four free passes in each of his last three starts.

"I felt great knowing there were no walks," he said. "I know I was behind on a couple guys, but I was happy I still pounded the strike zone and I went in and attacked the hitters."

gonzalez-big-smile-red-close-sidebar.jpgGonzalez attributed the lack of walks - and some improvements he has made when trying to pitch out of jams - to work he has done with director of mental conditioning Mark Campbell, a new member of the Nationals medical staff this season. Campbell has specifically been working with Gonzalez on breathing techniques and other exercises to help him slow down when he's in a tight spot in a game.

"He's got a little catchphrase that's pretty cool: 'Feed the family,' " Gonzalez said. "It worked today. Just constantly slowing the game down, get back in the situation, and get back to that little thing and feel great."

Gonzalez has always straddled the fine line between using his public displays of emotion to help him versus to hurt him. The Nationals hope the work he's doing this spring can help the left-hander find a better balance and better concentrate in key situations.

"The first thing about trying to solve something is you have to identify the problem," manager Dusty Baker said. "So evidently he knows, or somebody told him, that breathing and calmness is the key. Once you know the problem, the next step is deal with the solution. I'm proud of him for dealing with the solution."

Gonzalez is scheduled to make one more exhibition start, most likely Friday against the Twins at Nationals Park, before making his regular season debut April 8 against the Braves at Turner Field.

* The Nationals bullpen dilemma didn't get any easier today after a couple of guys battling for the final spots on the staff pitched well.

Sean Burnett got into a second-and-third, one-out jam - the two batters reached via a dribbler down the third-base line and a fly ball to right that Bryce Harper misplayed - and escaped with a strikeout of Emilio Bonifacio and a ground ball from Gordon Beckham.

So make it eight spring appearances for Burnett without allowing a run, including back-to-back days this weekend. That's the first time the 33-year-old left-hander pitched in consecutive games, a key final step in his attempted return from a second Tommy John surgery.

Matt Belisle, meanwhile, also tossed a scoreless inning of relief for the second straight day. The 35-year-old right-hander has given up hits in only two of his six appearances so far, putting pressure on the organization to include him in their opening day bullpen.

Belisle is free to opt out of his minor league contract starting today; for now, he remains in Nationals camp. Burnett has an April 1 opt-out in his contract.

Given the continued uncertainty with the final two slots in their bullpen, the Nats likely won't make their final roster cuts until after they've left Florida for Washington on Wednesday evening, Baker said.

* The Nationals nearly pulled off a triple play in today's game. With runners on first and second and nobody out in the fourth, Nick Swisher hit a sharp grounder to third. Stephen Drew picked up the ball and appeared to briefly think about taking two steps to touch the bag before throwing it around the horn. He decided to forego that out, though, and instead threw to second to begin a 5-4-3 double play.

Throughout the stadium and in the Nats dugout, people were disappointed not to see at least an attempt at the rare triple play. Nobody was more disappointed than Baker, who incredibly claims he has never seen one in person.

"I was calling: 'Triple play! Triple play!' But he was a little too far off the bag," the 66-year-old manager said. "You take the outs you can get. To tell you the truth, I've never seen a triple play. Not in person. Cause I was on one team and went to use the bathroom real quick. I went in to use the bathroom and everybody's running off the field! 'What happened?' 'Triple play!'

"I'm going to hopefully have that happen for us this year."

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