“We’re saving the wins,” starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann deadpanned.
Zimmermann’s demeanor displayed the Nationals’ view on their recent tailspin, which continued today with a 5-1 loss to the Astros in which 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,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “But the won-loss record really doesn’t impact any of our decisions. I like seeing our pitchers getting stretched out and showing stuff through 85 pitches. I like guys that can get at-bats. 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. The Nationals entered today with a .694 OPS 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 offensive spring.
“I like seeing one run,” Johnson said. “No runs, I don’t like seeing that. But we’re going to be better.”
Johnson pointed out that injuries to Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche have prevented the Nationals from using a full lineup. He also said he has focused on giving playing time to players competing to make the team.
If the Nationals’ malaise continues into next week, it could be a troubling sign. Johnson plans to begin playing his everyday lineup, or close to it, beginning Sunday, and he thinks it will create something closer to a regular-season environment.
“This is the dog days right now,” Johnson said. “This is right before I go to the whip with the guys. This is the dog days. I’ve seen it my whole life. I kind of expect it.”
The Nationals, like all teams, do not treat spring training situations as they would the regular season. An example surfaced today. With a runner on third and two outs in the fourth inning, Zimmermann stared in at Jose Altuve, the Astros eighth 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. Zimmermann focused more on the way he threw his changeup, the pitch he has tried to develop for three years. He threw plenty of them, and with his changeup he induced two swing-and-misses and a groundball double play. “It’s come a long way,” Zimmermann said, “so I’m happy with that.”
In his next start, with the season approaching, Zimmermann will change his tactics.
“I’m going to take like it’d be during the season,” Zimmermann said. “I’ll work a little differently. I’m going to pitch how I’m going to pitch in the season this next start.”
Even if the Nationals aren’t taking the losses hard, they do not want to be embarrassed. Before Werth went to bat in the seventh inning, Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell and Brett Myers had allowed one base runner, on a walk by Danny Espinosa in the first inning.
“I’ve never been no-hit in spring,” Werth said. “I’ve seen some bad performances, but never no-hit.”
Werth expected a first-pitch fastball from Myers, his old teammate with the Phillies, and he buckled when Myers threw him a curveball for a strike. Later in the at-bat, Werth dribbled a groundball through the middle, saving the Nationals from Grapefruit League infamy.
Jason Michaels would 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.”
Now that they’ve got down.