Nationals Manager Davey Johnson wanted to ease Henry Rodriguez into his first game since August surgery to clean up a bone spur in his right elbow. He was going to limit him to one batter, maybe two, on Friday. Rodriguez told pitching coach Steve McCatty he wanted to face all three batters. He felt ready for a full workload and confident. He got his way.
Rodriguez baffled Cardinals hitters in his spring debut, tossing only eight pitches to get three outs in the sixth inning. He got line drive outs from J.R. Towles and Ryan Jackson. He got Justin Christian to ground out to first base. Rodriguez started two batters with first-pitch strikes. For a pitcher with much to prove this spring, he rewarded the Nationals’ faith in his ability with a strong first outing.
“He picked right up,” Johnson said. “He hadn’t been out there in a while. He went right after them. It’s good to have him back.”
Said Rodriguez: “Imagine, after all this time, returning at this point in spring training, it was something I was hoping would come soon.”
Following the game, Rodriguez said that the tightness in his arm that has slowed him some this spring is gone. He threw six fastballs and only two sliders, neither with any issue. The Nationals believed that the bone spur in his elbow was also contributing to his lack of command last season. “Nothing hurts and I feel good,” he said. “The way I’ve been throwing the bullpens, I’ve felt a difference.”
Rodriguez said he felt confident on the mound Friday. But curiously, he admitted he didn’t throw at 100 percent force or arm strength, and “there’s a little more left.” He said he has been throwing this way in his bullpen sessions and found that it works.
According to a radar gun reading, he threw his fastball at around 96 and 97 miles per hour — within his normal range. He averaged 97.6 mph on his fastball last season, per Fangraphs.com, but Rodriguez would sometimes rear back and fire a 100 mph fastball.
“That’ll come on its own,” he said. “If I feel good, which is most important, the velocity will come. … I did what I wanted to and had been doing in the bullpens, which was stay on top of the ball and locate it well.”
Rodriguez is out of minor league options so he has to make the Nationals roster out of spring training. Asked earlier in the day what he wants to see from Rodriguez in order to crack the opening day bullpen, Johnson: “Healthy.” He didn’t want Rodriguez dialing back any of his fiery fastball just to improve his command.
“He had the best command of anyone in camp last spring and he threw 100,” Johnson said. “Do I want him to back off that? No. No thank you.”
>>> Wilson Ramos was originally scheduled to catch only four innings on Friday but after a long third inning in which Jordan Zimmermann faced 10 batters, Johnson pulled the catcher. He nimbly dove to his right to catch offspeed pitches and quickly hopped up on his legs for a pump fake to first base.
Ramos looked so comfortable and agile in his second game behind home plate since knee surgeries that Johnson is considering alternating him with catcher Kurt Suzuki.
“I’m probably going to try to do from here on out if there’s not sore or something from the slide or hard inning,” Johnson said. “I want him to get the at-bats and build him up to nine innings back there. So now is the time. Suzuki is fine but Wilson, I want to see if he can do it.”
Ramos also gave the Nationals yet another encouraging sign while on the base paths. He took third base when Shelby Miller uncorked a wild pitch in the third inning. He ran and slid safely into third base on his surgically-repaired right knee.
“I thought he was going to be out by a mile when he slid,” Johnson said. “He got a good slide. I was pleased with how he looked back there. It was like he caught for six innings with that one inning.
>>> Nate Karns has been dealing with slight tightness in his right leg since his last appearance. The right-hander struggled in Friday’s game when pitching the fifth inning. Johnson was concerned and wants Karns to be evaluated by doctors even though the right-hander said his left was fine.
“He said it was something he pitched with but it’s not normal for a guy to have to feel something uncomfortable in his right leg when he pushes off,” Johnson said. “… He’s going to have further checking with the doctors before I run him back out.”
The Nationals’ reigning minor league pitcher of the year allowed seven runs — only one earned — on four hits over 2/3 of an inning. Although his struggles were complicated by an Anthony Rendon error that could have been the third out, Karns walked a batter with the bases loaded and served up a grand slam to 5-foot-9 Shane Robinson.
He was originally a likely candidate to start March 13 for Gio Gonzalez, who will join Team USA if they advance in the WBC.
>>> Rafael Soriano and Tyler Clippard, veterans easing into their spring workloads, looked strong in their respective outings. Soriano worked around a leadoff single in the fourth inning and induced two groundouts and fired a silly slider at Robinson for a looking strikeout. Clippard was perfect in his quick 1-2-3 inning.
“‘Man, Clip, looking good. What was the ball? Was that your curveball?’” Johnson said, recounting his conversation with the right-handed reliever “‘No, that was my cutter.’ He’s coming up with all these new pitches. He said, ‘I feel good. I’m ready to go.’ I’mma have to put you on maybe Soriano’s workout thing. He’s looked really good. Really crisp.”
>>> Bryce Harper went
21 for 2 and is hitting a cool .435 in 23 spring at-bats. He smacked a two-run triple in the third inning, chugging around the bases in mid-season form. He had a fun 12-pitch battle in his first at-bat against Cardinals’ top young arm, starter Shelby Miller, that ended on a strikeout.
“I think I threw one or two curves,” Miller said. “I was trying to beat him with my fastball and I finally did. It was up and away when we were trying to go away. I thought it was a lot of fun. It was fun facing that offense.”
>>> The Nationals scored seven runs in the ninth inning of the 16-10 loss. The highlights: Micah Owings solo home run to right-center field on the first pitch of his at-bat; Matt Skole’s two-run single; and Zach Walters’ full-count two-run home run with two outs. The game was three hours and 15 minutes.