Long before the Nationals finished their second game of the Grapefruit League schedule — a sloppy 16-15 win over the Braves in their home opener in Space Coast Stadium that lasted four hours and featured 37 hits and six errors — Jordan Zimmermann made his first start of the spring on Saturday.
The right-hander fired only 20 pitches, 15 of them for strikes, over two innings, quick and efficient as he likes. Of the six hitters he faced, he induced five groundballs and struck one out. And, he had a good and unexpected early feel for his change-up, a pitch he has long worked on and served him well last season.
“Threw strikes, bottom of the zone, therefore, I got a lot of groundballs, which is good,” Zimmermann said. “Threw some good change-ups. Threw a couple to [Freddie] Freeman. One was 3-2. I threw one 1-0 to him and he kinda looked at me like, ‘Really? We’re starting this already?’ So it was good. Got to 3-2 and I figured that was the last thing he was looking for. Threw a pretty good one. It was up a little bit, but he rolled it over and got a groundball, so it was good.”
Zimmermann also benefited from the strong defense of Danny Espinosa, who started at shortstop. In the first inning, three balls were hit to him. On a ball deep in the hole, he nearly threw out Jordan Schafer at first with a bullet of a throw. Then, Zimmermann got Andrelton Simmons to roll over a pitch and induced a double play turned solo by Espinosa. The final out of the inning was on a groundball up the middle that Espinosa nabbed and fired to first to be scooped up by Tyler Moore.
Zimmermann said he feels right on track in his spring schedule. He hopes to throw three or four innings in his next start. He threw no more than two sliders, a purposeful choice by Zimmermann, who didn’t want to show the Braves all of his pitches. Although they are a familiar and frequent opponent, the less he showed, he said, the better. He stuck mostly to two pitches, and he was happy his change-up felt this way in early March.
“Hopefully this is the way it feels all year, but it’s still early,” he said.
>>> Bryce Harper, Denard Span, Anthony Rendon and Jose Lobaton made their spring debuts. Span went 2 for 3 and scored a run. Harper, who looked strong running on his surgically repaired left knee, went 0 for 1 and drew two walks, including one against a left-hander. Rendon finished 0 for 2 with an RBI. Lobaton went 1 for 2. (By the way, Zach Walters, who started at third, is 3 for 3 this spring. And Mike Fontenot drove in four runs, keying a five-run comeback.)
Manager Matt Williams has vowed to make his team more aggressive on the basepaths and kept his word in the third inning. With Harper batting and one out, Span stole second. After Harper drew a walk and Moore was batting, Span and Harper executed a double steal to get both runners into scoring position. Moore’s sacrifice fly then scored Span. This was the epitome of the small-ball style that Williams has preached.
>>> After the regulars were subbed out of the game, play turned sloppy. The Nationals committed five errors, three of them in a circus fifth inning, capped by Michael Taylor’s mishaps in right. Williams said it was a tough day for the outfielders because of the wind. And Taylor hasn’t played right field as much, but the Nationals wanted to him playing time there.
“Coached the hell out of them,” defensive coordinator-advance scout Mark Weidemaier said as he walked by reporters in the hallway postgame. Added Williams: “I think it’s an aberration. It’s one of those days. We’ll address it. But you can’t explain it. Michael slips and wheels and throws and no one’s there. It happens.”
On one flyball in the fifth Taylor slipped near the line, corralled it and made a wild throw, allowing Matt Lipka to notch a Little League home run. Other miscues included no one covering second base on a throw by Sandy Leon in the ninth and a throwing error by Rendon in the fourth.
Oddly enough, the Nationals were slated to go through situational defense drills on Sunday morning. “So it’s actually perfect timing,” Williams said.
>>> Luis Ayala, the veteran right-hander in camp on a minor league deal who is fighting for a spot in the bullpen, pitched a strong 1 2/3 innings to earn the save. He came on in the eighth inning with the bases loaded with one out to relieve Clay Hensley and escaped from the jam. In the ninth, he pitched around a hit and an error to finish the game. Ayala posted the best groundball rate (58.9 percent) of his career last season and his sinking fastball was effective on Saturday. He’s a dark-horse candidate to make the opening day roster.
“He’s the perfect guy for that situation, regardless of what time of year it is,” Williams said. “Because the ball gets on the ground when he pitches. We want to give ourselves a chance there.”
Depending on the next month, Ayala could be a helpful arm for the Nationals. He is a veteran and his groundball-inducing fastball could be useful in cleaning up messes.
“He’s a guy that can have really quick innings,” Williams said. “An aggressive opposition. Ball sinking in. A lot of groundballs. That’s why we’re considering him and that’s why he’s here. It was a perfect situation for him today.”
>>> In their first appearances of the spring, Matt Purke and Blake Treinen struggled. Each allowed four earned runs.