Yunel Escobar finally takes the field, Matt Williams still cautious with Anthony Rendon

VIERA, Fla. - Second baseman Yunel Escobar made a successful exhibition season debut in today’s 7-6 win over the Yankees. The eight-year veteran has been sidelined for the past three weeks with a Grade 1 oblique strain, which he suffered just before the Grapefruit League opener. Nationals manager Matt Williams placed Escobar at the top of the lineup in hopes of getting him two at-bats in the three innings he played.

Escobar responded right way, legging out a chopper to third for an infield single.

“No issues today,” Williams said. “Swinging hard often. Came out of it just fine. It’s a really good sign that he’s feeling good about it.”

escobar-spring-training-sidebar.jpgHe ended up 1-for-2 on the day after lining out to left in the third. Most of the focus is on Escobar’s transition to second base, where the 32-year-old has only played 21 times in his career, all in his 2007 rookie season. Escobar made a sweet diving stop when he fielded a blistering grounder with the infield in. He rose to his feet to nail Brett Gardner at first base while the Yankees’ Rob Refsnyder crossed the plate for the first run of the game.

As the rain began to fall heavily in the second inning, Escobar was presented with his first double play opportunity with shortstop Ian Desmond. The two had been spending a lot of extra time working on timing and positioning before Escobar’s injury. Desmond flipped the slippery ball to Escobar for the force at second, but the new second baseman’s throw wildly missed first baseman Ryan Zimmerman for an error.

Williams wasn’t bothered by the play, chalking it up to the weather. Escobar is quite animated on the field and in the batter’s box. He was helping the umpire call balls during his at-bats by waving his arms around as if to motion that’s outside.

“He loves to play,” Williams said. “He whistles in the infield. He just loves to play the game.”

Nats starting pitcher Doug Fister didn’t have his best stuff today. Fister gave up four runs on seven hits, including two homers, with four strikeouts and a hit batter in 4 1/3 innings to raise his spring ERA to 4.97.

“We’ve got a couple weeks left here in spring,” Fister said. “I got my work cut out for me, but it’s nothing for me to be alarmed about. I’ve given up a couple of home runs. That’s like what I normally do. I definitely left some pitches over the plate and those guys are good hitters. That’s something I need to focus on to be a little better at. I was trying to get the ball down today. It kind of got away from me and stayed up a little bit.”

Fister made up for it a bit with a two-run single in the fourth.

“I wouldn’t call it a big hit, but it got the runs in,” he joked.

Williams said right-hander Stephen Strasburg will throw another light bullpen session tomorrow before rejoining the rotation for two more scheduled starts before opening day.

Meanwhile, the news was not as good for third baseman Anthony Rendon, who sprained his left MCL in his third exhibition game and hasn’t returned since.

“If you sprain a ligament, it’s going to be sore,” Williams said. “The question is if he goes out and plays, can he damage it further? So we want to get him past certainly the pain of it and have him be confident when he goes out there, because if he’s a confident player, he’s a better player.”

Anthony-Rendon-batting-red.jpgWilliams acknowledged that time is running out for Rendon to make it back for the Nationals’ opener against the Mets on April 6 at Nats Park. Apparently, Rendon is dealing with the most discomfort while hitting.

“It’s a little sore when he swings because it’s his front leg and he’s got to hit against it,” Williams said. “So that bothers him. We’re doing as much as we can without regressing. That’s the unknown at this point.”

Williams said left fielder Jayson Werth may take his first at-bats of the spring on Wednesday in a minor league game depending on how he feels tomorrow.

The biggest news of the day came when Williams announced that right-hander Max Scherzer will be the Nationals’ opening day starter. Fister and Scherzer were teammates in Detroit when Scherzer won the American League Cy Young Award in 2013.

“Max is very qualified for this opportunity for him,” Williams said. “I think he’s going to do well with it and that’s going to be a great thing for us. It sets the tone for our whole season right there.”

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