WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - This being the final day of spring training, the Nationals’ goals were pretty simple: Get through the day quickly and healthy.
They were successful on both counts.
Today’s 5-3 exhibition loss to the Astros at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches wrapped up in a mere 2 hours, 30 minutes. And everybody walked away in one piece before showering, dressing and boarding the bus for the airport and the charter flight home to Washington.
Davey Martinez gave a handful of regulars who have played a lot lately (Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Trea Turner) the day off. Those who did play got a couple of at-bats a piece and got out of there.
Every member of the rotation made every start as planned and built up to a high pitch count, capped today by Patrick Corbin’s 99-pitch outing.
Every member of the projected bullpen made at least six appearances, except for late signee Tony Sipp, who is staying back to pitch in a couple more minor league games but will be ready for Thursday’s opener.
Every member of the opening day lineup got at least 30 plate appearances in big league games, with rookie center fielder Victor Robles topping the squad with 62.
The difference from 2018, when several key players were still rehabbing from offseason injuries, is dramatic. This is a healthy team heading north.
“Oh, yeah,” manager Davey Martinez said. “That’s always a concern in spring training, leaving here with a healthy group of guys.”
The Nationals can point to any number of reasons they finished a disappointing 82-80 last year, but injuries and poor fundamentals were at or near the top of the list. They’ll enter 2019 a much healthier bunch than they entered 2018. And they believe they’ll enter 2019 a much more fundamentally sound team than they were entering 2018.
The team’s defensive numbers in games weren’t all that encouraging. The Nats were charged with 29 errors in 30 games, tied for 22nd most in the majors. They turned only 15 double plays, second-fewest.
But those numbers include all 80 players, major leaguers and minor leaguers alike, who appeared in Grapefruit League games. Only 12 of the errors were committed by projected members of the opening day roster.
The offensive numbers were more striking in a positive way. The Nationals ranked in the top five in the majors in runs, homers, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS this spring. They struck out fewer times than all National League teams except for the Mets and Diamondbacks.
And in this final week of games, when regulars got more playing time, they manufactured more runs with quality at-bats, advancing runners into scoring position, taking extra bases and then driving them in.
Martinez opened the spring with a message to his players of emphasizing fundamentals. He believes they responded.
“We had a really good camp,” the second-year manager said. “We pushed them to do the little things, and they did them. I really feel like we got better at some of the things we wanted to get better at. Now we just have to carry it over into day one of the season.”
With a lineup now featuring three speedsters in the 9-1-2 spots (Robles, Adam Eaton, Turner) the Nationals expect to be a more offensively efficient team.
“Every inch and every 90 feet is vital to us turning around that one-run record we had last year (18-24), which I thought was indicative of the disappointment we had last year,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “You’ve got to win those games. Good teams win those games.”
After six weeks having fundamentals pounded into their heads, the Nationals are now en route to D.C. They’ll face the Yankees in one final exhibition game Monday (weather permitting) and then turn their attention to Thursday’s star-studded opener against the Mets, with reigning Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom facing three-time winner Max Scherzer.
All the talk of the last six weeks won’t mean a thing if they don’t practice what they preached here in Florida.
“We think the fact that offensively more efficient, better baserunning, aggressive baserunning and the upgrade we’re going to have defensively is going to be really important to us winning a division,” Rizzo said. “And going deep in the playoffs.”