Night baseball is back! The Washington Nationals played under the lights for the first time in the New Year and topped the division-rival New York Mets 7–4. Sure, it’s just spring training, but this had the atmosphere of a real ballgame for at least the first six innings as ace Max Scherzer outdueled Mets rotation hopefuls Zack Wheeler and Seth Lugo. Washington improves to 9–8–2 on the preseason, as while the Nats haven’t dominated in Grapefruit League play, they have held their own.
The fireworks started early as, after a 1-2-3 inning from Scherzer, the Nats played smallball against Wheeler. Starting shortstop Trea Turner walked and stole second on the first pitch to right fielder Bryce Harper, then Harper walked and both runners advanced on a nifty double steal. Third baseman Anthony Rendon sliced a ball hard to right field that was caught but allowed both runners to tag up and advance, plating Turner and putting Harper on third with two away. Harper was singled home by left fielder Brian Goodwin, then after catcher Matt Wieters moved Goodwin to second with a single, center fielder Victor Robles doinked one into center field to bring another run across. Wheeler finally stopped the bleeding by striking out first baseman Jose Marmolejos, the only hitter in the sequence not expected to be a major league regular for the Nats at some point this season.
From there on out, the Nats added a couple more runs on singles by Wieters and Marmolejos in the third inning, leaving Wheeler with an ugly five earned runs on his pitching line for the evening; Scherzer ultimately struck out nine in five brilliant one-hit innings to earn the win; replacement outfielder Andrew Stevenson doubled in two more runs with a very Daniel Murphy-esque double to right field off Mets reliever A.J. Griffin; and the Mets attempted a comeback that ultimately fell short.
- Tim Collins was a pitching highlight for the Nats. He battled an inconsistent strikezone called by home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom in the ninth inning to strike out three Mets around a walk to former Nats outfielder Matt den Dekker. That’s the first save for Collins of the spring. The 5′ 7″ left-hander hit 97-98 mph on the radar gun as he is fighting to be considered for a bullpen spot.
- Turner’s plate discipline experiment continued as he drew two walks and went 1-for-2 in hitting today. He stole two bases and scored two runs. Not too shabby for the Nats shortstop.
- Wieters went 2-for-3 with a lineout that den Dekker made an excellent catch on at his shoetops. He is hitting an amazing .412 on the spring and looking much quicker and stronger than he did last season.
- Scherzer had no-hitter stuff, with only a 75-pitch limit (which he exceeded by a pitch or two) and a hard-hit double by Mets shortstop Amed Rosario that got over Robles’ head in center field to stop him. He threw his curveball a lot and fooled hitters badly with his breaking stuff while using his firm mid-90s fastball to get ahead in the count.
- This game was nationally televised! Truly, real baseball is almost back.
- Spencer Kieboom, who replaced Wieters behind the plate, struck out in his only at-bat. It was Kieboom’s first strikeout since March 1 and only his third of the spring, and it dropped his batting average to a lowly .360. OK, maybe he will be all right.
- Reliever Ryan Madson really got beat up, but he was the victim of some bad luck. While his pitching line says he gave up three earned runs on four hits, nothing was hit very hard off him, with two infield singles (including one that arguably should have been scored a fielder’s choice but wasn’t converted quickly enough by third baseman Adrian Sanchez), a blooper that left fielder Moises Sierra inexplicably pulled up short on, and a groundball that beat the shift through where the shortstop is usually positioned. It was a tough outing for Madson, but not as tough as…
- Joaquin Benoit‘s, as the 40-year-old reliever didn’t exactly cement his case for the Opening Day roster. Benoit fell behind the first four batters he faced, giving up two hits (one of them a solo home run by Rosario) and some more hard contact before whiffing his fifth batter faced, who didn’t appear to be picking the veteran up well.
- Starting second baseman Wilmer Difo went 0-for-4 with an error in the field. He’s now slashing .091/.234 for the spring and might be looking over his shoulder a little at fellow utilityman Matt Reynolds (.217/.819). Odds are Difo will still make the roster, especially with Murphy still recovering from knee surgery, but he needs to break his bat out of cold storage soon.
- The Nats let Scherzer hit for himself, but the Mets still used the designated hitter. Boo! Boooooo!
With that, the Nats are off tomorrow but look ahead to a day game at The Fitteam Ballpark of the Palm Beaches against the Houston Astros on Thursday. MLB.com lists Tommy Milone as the projected starter for the Nats in that game.