The Washington Nationals got one step closer to the real thing Monday night, hosting the New York Yankees for a final preseason exhibition and a small taste of what’s to come.
A predicted rain held off — perhaps a promising omen for 2019 — and the Nationals capped their spring with a 5-3 win at Nationals Park. New starter Aníbal Sánchez pitched 5⅓ innings, gave up two earned runs and threw 86 pitches. Third baseman Anthony Rendon crushed a two-run homer in the first. Juan Soto ripped an opposite-field double in the fourth, then misjudged a ball that led to a double in the sixth. The mood was light, the clubhouse energy high, and the Nationals, more than anything, appeared ready to host the New York Mets for their regular season opener Thursday. That will be a real game, after six long weeks of spring training, and will be Washington’s first of 162 chances to bury an 82-80 finish from a year ago.
“People are excited that baseball is back, and I think that we feel the same type of enthusiasm,” Nationals right fielder Adam Eaton said before Monday’s game. “Everyone was ready to break camp probably 10 days ago, but we know we kind of have to tread water there for the last 10 days.”
The last step for the Nationals, before they can fully look ahead, is to set their 25-man roster for Opening Day. They are very close to doing so, because camp offered few position battles and no injuries to any everyday starters or starting pitchers. Utility man Howie Kendrick (mild left hamstring strain), outfielder Michael A. Taylor (left knee and left hip sprain) and reliever Koda Glover (forearm strain) remained in West Palm Beach, Fla., to continue rehabbing. They will all begin the season on the injured list. Kendrick and Taylor should be fairly close to returning. Glover, with a history of arm problems, will be eased back with a less certain timetable.
But the Nationals are otherwise healthy, unlike a year ago when there were questions in right field with Eaton, at second base with Daniel Murphy and in the back of their rotation because Jeremy Hellickson had signed so late in the spring. Now the only real decision will be how to fill out the bullpen and bench. It appears Andrew Stevenson will replace Taylor, and Adrian Sanchez will fill in for Kendrick. The Nationals will use Hellickson as a reliever for at least the first two series, giving them eight bullpen arms to start the year. They are otherwise choosing among Justin Miller, Wander Suero and Austen Williams for the final two bullpen spots. Tony Sipp, who signed with the Nationals in mid-March, will throw around 20 pitches in a minor league game Tuesday and is expected to fly to Washington afterward.
“These guys, they looked good all spring,” Manager Dave Martinez said Monday when asked about his secondary relievers. “You bring a guy like Suero in for his second year and [he] has done well, Justin Miller had a good spring training and has done well. So I’m excited about those guys we have in the bullpen.”
That may indicate Williams is on the outside looking in, because Martinez mentioned Suero and Miller as options behind closer Sean Doolittle, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Sipp and Matt Grace. But Williams, 26 and a starter-turned-reliever, pitched his way into the Nationals’ plans this spring. The right-hander retired 22 of the 24 hitters he faced and did not give up an earned run in 7⅔ innings.
There may not be room for him once the Nationals set their roster by Wednesday — with right-handers Suero, Miller and Hellickson expected to fill out the bullpen — yet Williams believes he has raised his stock since debuting last September.
“They know what I can do now, if not for the start of the season then hopefully sometime in the near future,” Williams said Sunday. “I feel really confident in what I’ve showed the organization."
Sánchez was mostly sharp early on, striking out Aaron Judge and Luke Voit with a dipping change-up in the mid-80s. He yielded a home run to shortstop Troy Tulowitzki in the third inning, on an 88-mph first-pitch fastball, then came back to punch out Giancarlo Stanton with tailing, knee-high heat. His first start of the season is scheduled to come a week from Tuesday, against Bryce Harper and the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Nationals have been encouraged by his six-pitch repertoire and deception. His command waned a bit once his pitch count reached the 70s, but Sanchez was still testing each of his six pitches in all counts.
These were themes of spring that trickled on for one more day: Tinker while you can. Don’t stress results. Get to the season healthy and then place a high emphasis on every pitch. The Nationals made it, mostly in one piece, and their next contest will count.
“We had some conversations,” Martinez said when asked after the game if any roster decisions had been made. “Look, it’s not easy. We had some guys who had unbelievable camps. We’re going to probably sit down tomorrow again and try to figure things out.”
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