Despite woes, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo remains optimistic

Toni L. Sandys/THE WASHINGTON POST - Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo checks his Blackberry during practice as first baseman Adam LaRoche, left, heads to the plate during practice this month in Viera, Fla.

KISSIMMEE, FLA. — Friday afternoon, the Washington Nationals waited until the seventh inning to register their first hit and slogged to another Grapefruit League loss. Their cleanup hitter remained back in Viera, prohibited from baseball activities. Their first baseman took at-bats in a minor league game. And their general manager found ample cause for optimism.

General Manager Mike Rizzo expects Michael Morse will return from his strained lat muscle by opening day or shortly thereafter, which bolstered Rizzo’s confidence in taking the Nationals into the regular season as currently constructed. After observing Morse on Friday, Rizzo took a far more hopeful view than Manager Davey Johnson on Thursday, when Johnson described contingency plans for Morse’s absence.

Morse recently received a platelet-rich plasma injection and has been shut down from baseball activities. But Rizzo watched him run stairs at Space Coast Stadium on Friday morning, and he believes Morse will not need to begin the season on the disabled list.

“He’s feeling good,” Rizzo said. “He’s bouncing around the clubhouse. I feel good about where he’s at. I feel good about opening day, just seeing him in the clubhouse today. I feel good about him opening day, and if not opening day, soon thereafter. That’s the way he looks to me.”

Johnson also struck a more positive chord toward the Nationals’ growing spate of injuries, saying, “I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for all of these guys.”

Rizzo’s opinion of the Nationals’ health helps shapes his view on the complexion of the team two weeks before opening day. Rizzo does not expect to make any trades that would significantly alter the makeup of the Nationals’ roster.

“When healthy, we feel really good with where we’re at,” Rizzo said. “As of today, our health status, I feel good about it. Knock on wood, there hasn’t been any catastrophic injury that’s going to carry through into April and through the season. A lot of teams can’t say that. We feel good about that.”

Many teams have inquired about starting pitcher John Lannan, but with Chien-Ming Wang recovering from a strained hamstring, the Nationals would have to be blown away by an offer to part with Lannan. Friday morning, Wang jogged at a walking pace around the warning track at Space Coast Stadium, a sign of why the Nationals don’t expect him ready by April 5.

The Nationals also have been connected to Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Gerardo Parra, and the Diamondbacks had a scout at Friday’s 5-1 loss to the Houston Astros. But one Nationals official said he did not expect the team to strike a deal for Parra, and Rizzo reiterated the team is not actively seeking outside help.

“We haven’t made any calls,” Rizzo said. “If something comes up and we can improve ourselves, we’ll certainly investigate it. But we’re not selling anybody or shopping anybody, because we like where we’re at.”

On the field, the Nationals have had little on the surface to like. The results and statistics will be ignored by players and soon forgotten by everyone else. The harsh black-and-white facts remain: The Nationals have not won once in the past 10 games, an 0-9-1 stretch that began March 13.

“We’re saving the wins,” starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann deadpanned.

Zimmermann’s demeanor displayed the Nationals’ view on their recent tailspin, which continued Friday when the Nationals veered within seven outs of being no-hit. No matter how ugly it gets, they simply do not care about spring training results until, maybe, the final week.

“We always like to win games, like we’ve said for years,” Rizzo said. “But the won-loss record really doesn’t impact any of our decisions. We’ll see in the last week or so, when you get your team out there for an extended period of time, how ready we are and how close we are to opening day.”

The Nationals have averaged 2.7 runs during their 10-game winless streak, and they’ve scored three runs in their past four games, two of those shutouts. They entered Friday with a .694 on-base plus slugging percentage as a team, 26th worst in the majors. Those stats may not tell you what to expect when the season begins. But they tell you it is becoming a bleak spring for an offense that finished the 2011 season 25th in runs scored.

“I like seeing one run,” Johnson said. “No runs, I don’t like seeing that. But we’re going to be better.”

The Nationals, like all teams, do not treat spring training situations as they would during the regular season. An example surfaced Friday. With a runner on third and two outs in the fourth inning, Zimmermann stared in at Jose Altuve, the Astros’ No. 8 hitter. The pitcher stood on deck.

“During the season, I probably would have worked around him and gotten to the pitcher,” Zimmermann said. “Here, I’m not going to give in to an eight-hole hitter.”

Altuve smacked a groundball single, which Zimmermann shrugged off along with the run that scored.

The Nationals would be saved from Grapefruit League infamy when Jayson Werth hit a soft single with two outs in the seventh inning, and Jason Michaels hit a home run an inning later, preventing a third shutout in four days. The Nationals have had only minor victories lately, but that does not bother them.

“Not at all,” Johnson said. “I don’t want them peaking too early.”

With that, Johnson had found one more way for the Nationals to look on the bright side.

 
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