What to watch for in tonight's exhibition opener

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – It’s been exactly 145 days since the Nationals last played a baseball game. That dry spell ends tonight, and even though it’s merely opening night for the Grapefruit League season, it’s still a whole lot better than not playing a baseball game, right?

The Nats’ first of 31 exhibition games over the next month is a Saturday night home game against an Astros club that shares the same spring complex with them. The recently renamed CACTI Park of the Palm Beaches will be re-dedicated, with Houston rap star (and CACTI hard seltzer founder) Travis Scott throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to Josiah Gray.

Then everyone gets down to business, and there’s plenty of business at hand for the Nationals. Here are some things to watch for tonight …

* Which regulars will play?
Davey Martinez didn’t divulge any details about his starting lineup in advance, other than saying CJ Abrams will be leading off. Most of the projected regulars should be playing as well, but we’ll have to wait to find out for sure.

It will, of course, be interesting (and perhaps telling) where a handful of guys are playing. Is Joey Meneses the opening night first baseman, or will Joey Gallo get that honor? If not, will Gallo be in left field? Are Luis García Jr. and Victor Robles both starting, and if so, will they feel pressure to do something of note in their spring debuts, given the tenuous hold each has on his respective starting job?

What about Stone Garrett? It didn’t sound like the Nationals are going to throw him right into games yet, preferring to ease him back in in the wake of last August’s broken leg and injured ankle. Martinez even suggested Garrett would benefit from making his return in a minor league game where he can DH before joining the big league squad in an official game later on.

No matter who’s playing, don’t be surprised if the hitters look like they’re behind the pitchers. That’s because they are.

“For me, it’s all about timing right now,” Martinez said. “The pitchers are going to be a little ahead of hitters for a lot of this. So just get yourself ready to hit, and get ready to hit the fastball. We were really good at it last year. I think we’re going to be good at it again this year.”

* Can three planned starting pitchers complete their two planned innings apiece?
In a bit of an unconventional plan, the Nationals will not only send Patrick Corbin to the mound tonight but also two other guys who finished last season in the rotation: Jackson Rutledge and Joan Adon.

Each of them is scheduled to throw two innings and 35 pitches, but as we know, there’s no guarantee they’ll remain efficient enough to follow through with that plan.

Rutledge and Adon in particular had trouble with some high pitch counts and long innings last season. Here’s an opportunity for both young right-handers to show they can throw strikes, get quick outs and complete their two frames as hoped.

Once the three starters are done for the night, Martinez will turn to a bullpen that is scheduled to include Jordan Weems, Richard Bleier, Robert Gsellman and DJ Herz. Each would be limited to one inning at this point.

* How much playing time do the kids get?
None are expected to be in tonight’s lineup, but all of the top prospects in big league camp are expected to get into the game coming off the bench.

So this will be the first time Dylan Crews appears in a Nationals uniform in a spring training game. James Wood, Brady House, Trey Lipscomb, Robert Hassell III and Darren Baker each got a little taste of it last spring as daily call-ups from minor league camp. But this will be a more thorough examination of all of these young players, with club officials watching closely to see how they handle the assignment.

Look for everyone to enter the game in the middle innings and receive perhaps two plate appearances apiece.

“They’re going to get plenty of playing time, especially early (in the spring),” Martinez said. “But we’ve got to get ready for Opening Day. Our (major league) guys are going to get the at-bats they need.”

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