Young prospects shine after starters struggle in spring opener

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Spring training results are a tricky thing to decipher. The final scores of games mean nothing. Individual performances can mean something, but you always have to include the context in which they were achieved.

What, then, to take away from the Nationals’ spring training opener tonight, a 7-4 loss to the Astros that started off in unsightly fashion with starters in the game but then turned far more compelling as a host of young prospects took over?

Patrick Corbin’s laborious start – two runs, three hits, 49 pitches in only 1 2/3 innings – and a pair of shaky defensive plays behind him by Lane Thomas and Victor Robles set an ominous tone for the evening. But by the time James Wood demolished a baseball, Robert Hassell III tripled and singled, Dylan Crews made a diving catch in center field and Jackson Rutledge cruised through two innings on the mound, the events of the second half of the game felt more important than the events of the first half.

“This is going to be a fun spring training,” manager Davey Martinez said. “One, we’ve got to get our guys ready. And two, we’re going to see a lot of these young kids. I get to see them, put eyes on them, and work with them all camp. It keeps me busy, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s a good busy.”

Yes, it’s important for Corbin and Thomas and Robles to prepare for the season, and all three of them will need to execute better than they did tonight. But the 2024 season is probably going to be as much about that next wave of prospects – whenever they arrive in the majors – as it will be about the players returning from last year.

So in some ways the first four innings tonight felt like the lesser opening act to the main event that followed.

The “line change” occurred after all the starters got two at-bats. At that point, the Nats trailed 7-1. And then Wood stepped to the plate and changed that with one mighty swing.

Facing right-hander Misael Tamarez (who admittedly went 1-10 with a 5.08 ERA at Triple-A last season), Wood ambushed a first-pitch fastball and sent it soaring to the top of the berm beyond the right-center field wall, a loud blast that woke up everyone in the crowd of 3,655.

“I just looked for a pitch I could really handle,” the soft-spoken Wood said. “I kind of don’t really think too much. Just go up there with that approach and react to whatever.”

“Who else?” said Hassell, who watched it all from the on-deck circle. “That guy’s going to deliver. I’ve seen it myself in Double-A. You can’t throw him the first pitch down the middle.”

Nor, it appears, can you do that to Hassell, who followed Wood’s homer by ripping the first pitch he saw from Tamarez to left-center for an easy triple, with just a hint of a thought he might try to go all the way around.

“I knew I had three,” Hassell said. “Honestly, I watched it back on video just now. I don’t know if I would’ve had a chance to score, but I was getting around (the bases) pretty good.”

Crews entered one inning later, and though his night at the plate was less dramatic – he struck out on a foul tip and then worked a walk after falling behind 0-2 in the count – he made an athletic play on a sinking liner in center, taking out a huge chunk of grass as he landed with the ball in his glove.

“I watched that kid, and he’s got everything he needs to do,” Martinez said. “He’s very quick in the outfield. He throws the ball really well.”

Optimism was high, as it should be, in the moments leading up to the first game of the spring. Josiah Gray caught Grammy Award-winning rap star Travis Scott’s not-terrible ceremonial first pitch to begin the proceedings, then watched as his teammates took the field for the first time in 2024.

It did not get off to a promising start. Corbin’s spring campaign opened with a pair of catchable fly balls that were not caught, with Thomas getting twisted around on a ball hit to the wall in right field and Robles failing to call off second baseman Luis García Jr. on a blooper to center.

“That ball should’ve been caught,” Martinez said. “Especially with a guy on third base, I think the outfielder’s just got to call him off and try to get the ball. I’m glad nobody got hurt, but that’s something we’ll talk about tomorrow.”

Corbin surely deserved better, but he didn’t exactly help his own cause much, either. Despite consistently getting to two-strike counts, he struggled to put away Houston’s lineup (which included only two projected regulars) and saw his pitch count skyrocket.

Corbin was scheduled for 35 pitches tonight, but he needed that many just to complete the top of the first. Martinez let him re-take the mound for the second, and the lefty did respond with the final two of his four total strikeouts (all of which came on his newly unveiled cutter). But even those two extra at-bats required 14 pitches, leaving his total over a mere 1 2/3 innings at 49.

“To throw 50 pitches wasn’t the plan,” he said. “But I thought I made some good pitches that they did foul off. And I stayed away from hard contact for the most part.”

Not that Joan Adon fared any better. The right-hander entered with two outs and nobody on, yet somehow needed 33 pitches to end the inning. Six straight batters reached against him, three via hit, two via walk, one via catcher’s interference.

Keibert Ruiz would be called for catcher’s interference again in the top of the third, raising questions about his repositioning closer to the plate this spring in an attempt to get more strike calls at the bottom of the zone.

“He’s got to understand the hitters, who has those really long swings, and then back up,” Martinez said. “He’s got to start watching where the guys set up in the box. If he’s deeper in the box, then he needs to move further back. These are the little things that sitting up underneath the hitter he’s got to work on.”

Things would get better, though, on the pitching and catching front. Ruiz would go on to frame a couple of low pitches well enough to get strikes called, and he also made a strong throw to second on a stolen-base attempt.

And in the pitching department, Rutledge followed Corbin and Adon with a splendid display of efficiency, coasting through the top of the fourth on 12 pitches, then completing a scoreless top of the fifth as well to set a positive tone in his spring debut.

“That was a really big confidence-builder,” the tall right-hander said. “I worked really hard this offseason on being more efficient with how I was moving, optimized how my hips were working. I felt like I went out and just did it. It felt so easy. It felt so smooth. Going forward, it’s going to be really nice to have that in my back pocket: Just go in and get ground balls. Throw sinkers, they’ll hammer them into the ground. It’s easy.”

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