That the Nationals blew a three-run lead to the Cardinals with two outs in the bottom of the ninth today in Jupiter, Fla., was not of any real significance. Of far more consequence on this late March afternoon were the mostly positive pitching performances of Jon Lester and Joe Ross, who combined to record all but two of the game’s 27 outs.
And for a brief while, the most important development of the day might’ve been Starlin Castro’s unexpected departure after he appeared to tweak something running the bases in the top of the seventh. But after Castro insisted he merely suffered a hamstring cramp and manager Davey Martinez expressed optimism it’s nothing to worry about, that temporary scare can recede to the background.
Castro’s near-injury came at the end of a potentially significant day for the veteran infielder, who started at third base for the first time this spring in perhaps an indication the club isn’t convinced Carter Kieboom is the man for the job after all.
Castro, a career middle infielder who played 45 games at third base for the Marlins in 2019, said he’s comfortable at that position and spent time this winter working there. And it showed in his 2021 debut at the hot corner: He successfully fielded three grounders hit his way, including a tough play on a ball down the line that required a backhanded grab and long throw across the diamond to get Paul DeJong.
“He looked very comfortable over there,” Martinez said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “Made some tough plays earlier, and he made them with no issues. He looked really good.”
Castro, 30, hadn’t done any work at third base this spring until the weekend, but made a point the last two winters to spend considerable time at the position, knowing his services might be needed there.
“When I am with the Marlins, the end of the season, I just played a lot of games over there,” he said. “After that happened, I came to free agency and I just started to do it at both sides. We don’t know (where potential teams would want me), so that’s helped me a lot that I can play over there and play at second. And that’s what happened now. That’s something that doesn’t take me for surprise. I’m ready for it.”
The scare came not in the field but on the bases in the top of the seventh, after Castro reached on an error. Kyle Schwarber doubled to deep right-center, and Castro seemingly should’ve scored easily but instead pulled up at third base after he said his hamstring cramped up.
A brief conversation with Martinez and director of athletic training Paul Lessard resulted in Castro departing the game. He expressed confidence a short while later that it won’t be a problem moving forward.
“I just felt a little cramp,” he said. “I don’t think it’s nothing bad. I’ll see how I feel tomorrow. I had a hamstring issue before, and I don’t think it’s bad.”
Martinez was a bit more cautious, referring to Castro’s status as “day-to-day” but also opened his postgame Zoom session saying: “I’m glad he’s OK” and mentioning the veteran wants to play in Wednesday night’s game.
All of this came after a successful second start of the spring for Lester, who allowed one run over 3 2/3 innings, throwing 51 pitches. The veteran left-hander, whose preparation for the season was delayed two weeks once it was discovered he needed surgery to remove a parathyroid gland from his neck, cruised through his first three innings of work before loading the bases with nobody out in the fourth.
Lester did record two outs and looked strong enough to finish the inning, but Martinez didn’t want to push his pitch count any further and pulled him in favor of reliever Kyle McGowin.
Lester was most pleased with his ability to pitch four innings and feel no significant signs of fatigue. But he still seeks to refine his pitches (especially his curveball, which he hasn’t been able to locate yet this spring) and still believes an increase in fastball velocity is forthcoming (he averaged 88.5 mph today).
“I hope so, I do,” he said. “I feel good physically, so now I think it’s just a matter of getting those reps and getting my feet under me and building. I think that the big thing is I feel like I’m a little bit behind the eight-ball on some things, and I think (velocity) is one of them. I’m hoping that with ... a little bit of adrenaline in regular games, that it will go up a tick. But even if it doesn’t, I feel like I can still do the things I need to do.”
Lester is hoping to make two more exhibition starts before the season begins. Given the fact the Grapefruit League ends in six days, the Nationals might need to create a simulated game for him to pitch in after camp breaks to ensure he has enough opportunity to build up his pitch count and velocity before making his 2021 debut.
Ross, meanwhile, looks good to go as a member of the opening day rotation, barring some kind of unexpected development in the next week. The right-hander piggybacked off Lester’s start today, entering for the bottom of the fifth and nearly going the rest of the way. He threw 68 pitches (47 strikes) over 4 2/3 innings that included only one run allowed until he was pulled with two outs in the ninth and a man on base.
Dakota Bacus wound up allowing that inherited runner (plus two more of his own making) to score before recording the 27th out, leaving the official outcome of the game a 5-5 tie. That didn’t diminish the work Ross did during his long relief outing, which sets him up well to begin the season as a big league starter.
“I like him pounding the strike zone,” said Martinez, who still hasn’t officially named Ross his No. 5 starter. “His fastball was live. He came out throwing 95 (mph), which is great. His slider and cutter were really impressive today, as well. He’s in a good spot. He’s in a good place.”