In the top of the ninth inning this afternoon, Sean Burnett fielded a little dribbler that did not even reach the mound, spun, fired to first base and walked off the field, into the regular season. Burnett had polished off another scoreless inning to stack on top of his scoreless spring training.

Two innings earlier, the Mets had built most of their 8-2 victory against Drew Storen. He recorded two outs while surrendering seven hits and four runs, three of them on a three-run, opposite-field home run by David Wright.

The dual performances by the Nationals’ two primary candidates to close on the last day of spring were both, in some ways, fitting ends. Burnett did not yield an earned run in 9 1/3 innings, walking only one batter. Storen finished with an 11.12 ERA in 11 1/3 innings, having surrendered 14 earned runs, 24 hits and three homers.

Storen had gone three straight outings without allowing a run. He had finally found the fastball command he’d been trying to find all spring, and he mixed in sharp sliders. Today, though, the Mets started with a single to center by Luis Hernandez and a chopper that bounded over first baseman Ivan Rodriguez’s head for a double. Wright followed with the home run, and the Mets continued to pummel his pitches.

“He’s been making such progress,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. “I’m sure he’s discouraged by it.”

Later, Burnett showed again that regardless of whether he owns the closer title or not, he is the best weapon the Nationals have out of their bullpen. Burnett was clearly the Nationals’ most impressive pitcher this spring. The stats mean nothing, but the dominant spring gave Burnett confidence heading into the year.

“Whether you have a 10.00 ERA or a 0.00 ERA right now, it really doesn’t matter,” Burnett said. “But it’s a little more confidence going in knowing you’re throwing the ball well. I feel like I have pretty good feel for my pitches and things are working well. Hopefully, it stays like that.”

Riggleman has said the Nationals would likely use either Storen or Burnett in the ninth inning, depending on matchups. Burnett said the competition for the open closer role helped fuel him this spring. Burnett, like everyone else, is waiting to see how the Nationals deploy their relievers.

“I haven’t heard one word from anybody yet,” Burnett said. “I’ll just be ready for the phone to ring in the fifth or sixth. They’ll call us, and when the phone rings, we’ll go try to get outs. Maybe it’s better that way. I’m sure after several games, we’ll figure out what roles we’re going with. For right now, Thursday will be a surprise to all of us.”

(John McDonnell)

Rodriguez has played seven games at first base in his career, all of them coming in 2006 with the Tigers. Rodriguez said he actually played infield back before he signed professionally, when he was a teenager.

“You see the ball and catch it,” Rodriguez said. “I feel comfortable there. I feel good. It’s just another thing in this game that I can do.”

Riggleman tried him there because of the Nationals’ unusual bench composition. The only right-handed power threat off the bench is backup catcher Wilson Ramos. It would be a risk for the Nationals to use Ramos and leave themselves with only one catcher. In crucial situations, when Riggleman feels he has to pinch-hit Ramos to try to break open a game, Rodriguez could move to first – taking Adam LaRoche out as part of a double switch – while Ramos stays in at catcher.

“He needs a few more reps,” Riggleman said, “which we don’t have time for at this point.”

>>> Jordan Zimmermann finished an encouraging spring with a start undone by one miserable inning. Zimmermann allowed four hits, a walk and four runs in the second inning, which took him 32 pitches to finish. In total, Zimmermann threw 63 pitches, 42 of them strikes, while giving up four runs on seven hits and a walk and striking out two.

“I was working pretty fast the second inning,” Zimmermann said. “The only thing I wish I could change was, slow down a little bit, not grabbing the ball and going and getting ahead of myself.”

Overall, Zimmermann was happy with his first spring training following recovery from Tommy John surgery. The Nationals will place him on an innings limit this year, probably between 150 and 165 innings. “My arm feels good,” Zimmermann said. “I feel strong.”