I’m filling in for my beat partner, Jesse Dougherty. Hit me up on Twitter or by email — email@example.com — if there’s anything you’d like to see in the next Nationals spring training notebook.
The Nationals’ prized bullpen trio is starting slow — but starting nonetheless. Closer Sean Doolittle was effective Sunday when he became the first of them to appear in live game action. The left-hander, whose normal heavy metal intro music was replaced by “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” allowed just one flare single to left while striking out two New York Mets over 15 pitches (10 strikes). There was no radar gun in Port St. Lucie and Major League Baseball’s advanced technology didn’t monitor the game, but Manager Dave Martinez thought Doolittle’s signature high fastball had good velocity and better-than-usual late life.
It was a heartening day for all three relievers as Daniel Hudson inched toward a side session that Martinez expects “pretty soon,” and Will Harris, who was recently sidelined with a left abdomen injury, threw on flat ground.
Martinez has insisted all three pitchers not rush back because he understands last year’s postseason extended them. Not being ready for camp was a serious concern for Doolittle, and he has remained in contact with strength and conditioning coach Matt Eiden and athletic trainer Greg Barajas through his daily knee-strengthening routine.
The results Sunday boosted his confidence. He wants to establish a third pitch beyond his fastball and change-up, and he liked the five sliders he threw against the Mets. (He threw the pitch 5.8 percent of the time last year.) But he was most pleased with the pitch that has defined his career.
“It usually takes me weeks in camp to get swings and misses on my fastball,” he said. “I’m hoping that a lot of the work I did this offseason is translating. I feel like I’m in a better tempo and a better position mechanically. I would’ve liked to have put a little finer point on that inning, but for my first outing, I’m really excited about it."
Carter Kieboom’s struggles at third base are now affecting him at the plate. The 22-year-old finished 0 for 3 with two strikeouts Sunday, lowering his batting average to .083. This is spring training, so the numbers don’t matter, but they illustrate a larger concern for the Nationals. Martinez said in January the team would give Kieboom every chance to win the third base job for Opening Day, and that the Nationals would live with growing pains defensively because they knew he could hit. But if he slips in both aspects, making the team at all becomes a more difficult proposition.
The Nationals are addressing the situation by having Kieboom work on his footwork before practice. One of the older infielders, Asdrúbal Cabrera, started mentoring him as well. Yet it was a particularly tough weekend because, before Sunday’s struggles at the plate, he allowed a manageable groundball to scoot through his legs Saturday. It disrupted the rhythm of pitcher Erick Fedde, who left before completing the inning. Kieboom drew a four-pitch walk later in that game, but Martinez thought the effects lingered the next day.
“He might be pressing just a little bit,” Martinez said. “I tried telling him: ‘Go up there and have fun. Be aggressive.’ "
Another homegrown infielder, Luis Garcia, is making quite a first impression. The left-handed-hitting 19-year-old hammered a two-run homer to right-center field Saturday, and the Nationals didn’t shy away from drawing a small comparison to Juan Soto. Garcia is the Nationals’ second-best prospect behind Kieboom, according to MLB Pipeline, and profiles as a second baseman in the majors.
“Saw this little skinny kid when I first got here that everybody talked about, and now he’s just filling out,” Martinez said, adding, “Every time I look at him, I say, ‘You going to stop growing soon?’ ”
Ryan Zimmerman exhausted by the workload. Okay, just kidding. But Martinez did start his news conference Sunday by grinning and claiming one of his most impressive feats as a manager was getting the veteran first baseman four at-bats in February. He insisted it must be a record and said, after the second game, Zimmerman told him, “Hey, Skip, you’re playing me too much."
Zimmerman, 35, has long preferred practice on the backfields to spring training games. He maintains he doesn’t play in months starting with the letter “F.” But the early returns have impressed his manager. Zimmerman squared up a ball as well as he could Saturday, but it died in the wind. On Sunday, he doubled down the right field line. It’s a good early sign for a platoon at first base with Eric Thames after Zimmerman lost most of last season to nagging plantar fasciitis in his right foot.
When watching Juan Soto, don’t blink. This weekend, on a back field at the spring training complex, Soto launched a ball toward the moon. It was a similar sky-scraping shot to his home run in Game 6 of the World Series off Houston Astros starter Justin Verlander. The only differences were that he didn’t carry his bat to first base and way fewer people saw it.
Those who did — hitting coach Kevin Long, hitting partners Adam Eaton and Thames, a few reporters and Nationals staffers, and maybe a dozen fans leaning on the chain link fence — stopped what they were doing at the crack of the bat. He turned a routine spring training drill into theater, and Long shook his head as the ball hit far up on the netting in right-center. Even those who know the 21-year-old best can still be surprised.
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