WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Proper spring training analysis requires a fickle combination of suspending disbelief and indulging it, seeing potential and pitfalls in the good, seeing sample size and track record in the bad. As the Nationals beat the Mets, 7-4, Tuesday night on a chilly evening that mimicked a regular season night, they looked like a team so ready for the regular season one might worry they are peaking too soon. With two weeks to go until Opening Day, not all of the promise they showed Tuesday night will materialize this summer. Some of it might.
The days are dwindling now, meaning members of the Nationals front office are watching even more intently, trying to discern the difference between “too-good-to-be-true” and “worth-believing.” They probably didn’t have to think too hard about where Max Scherzer’s five scoreless innings fall. The reigning Cy Young Award Winner threw 54 of 76 pitches for strikes against a Mets lineup that had half its regulars. He struck out nine. He walked one. He allowed one hit, all while showcasing his curveball in counts in which he rarely threw it last year.
Scherzer, who is all but officially the Nationals’ Opening Day starter, will have two more starts in spring training if he stays on schedule. At this point, the question is not whether Scherzer is as good at 33 as he was for much of last year at 32. It is whether he can stay healthy enough to showcase that still-improving Cy Young stuff — and over the next two weeks, he and the Nationals must manage him accordingly.
“He comes out and competes every day,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “He’s very efficient. We gave him 75 pitches. He threw 76. He’s good.”
Matt Wieters, meanwhile, went 2 for 3 from the left side with three line drives Tuesday, a performance that lifted his average to .412. Wieters looks lighter, his bat speed looks better, and Kevin Long has stayed on him, swing by swing, throughout every batting practice session.
“We did some things to where we are trying to use the ground and stay grounded even more. Tonight, every pitch, I feel like I was able to do it every pitch,” Wieters said. “And that’s the big thing. I’ve felt what I’ve wanted to feel like now. Now it’s just a matter of getting it consistent to the point where I do it every pitch.”
Multiple scouts from rival teams said expect a bounce-back season from the 31-year-old, whose bat slowed to a crawl at times last year, but looks much quicker this season. Wieters will not hit .412 But the Nationals do not need him to be the all-star type he once was. They need him to be better than last season, and he has given them reason to believe he will be.
“His right-handed swing was really good. Now he’s honing in on his left-handed swing,” Martinez said. “We just want him to have good, quality at-bats, and that’s what he did tonight.”
Bryce Harper also continued a strong offensive spring, knocking two hits the other way, running his spring total of opposite-field hits to an unofficial half dozen. Harper has always been at his best when driving the ball the other way, and is doing so on the ground and in the air this spring, usually against major league quality pitching. Tuesday, he knocked a hard line drive through the left side against hard-throwing Zack Wheeler. He hit a ground-rule double to left field against A.J. Griffin. He is hitting .370 with a 1.026 OPS, and has not benefited from much luck to bloat his numbers. Instead, he has looked in control, like the more settled hitter he was in 2015.
“We sat in the dugout and discussed it,” Martinez said. “I told him, if you do that, you can win the batting championship. You really can. He said, ‘yeah, that’s what I need to do.’ ”
Trea Turner, who has struggled with off-speed stuff this spring, walked twice and seemed able to lay off some breaking balls that might have tempted him earlier. He has walked six times in 11 games, though four of them came in the earliest days of spring training. He has also struck out 12 times in 27 at-bats. Turner also stole two bases after his first walk Tuesday. Whatever he is at the plate — more patient, more prone to strikeouts, or somewhere in between — he is still a unique weapon on the bases.
Nationals decision-makers will also have to decide exactly what they have in some of their relievers. Are the three earned runs Joaquin Benoit has now allowed in three innings of work a sign that age has stolen his effectiveness? Martinez laughed at the notion, and suggested the veteran right-hander will be just fine. Is left-hander Tim Collins, two Tommy John surgeries in, a legitimate option for their Opening Day bullpen? The former Royals stalwart earned the save Tuesday night, and has now allowed one earned run on two hits in six innings of work, showcasing a mid-90s fastball in the process.
The Nationals did decide that a few players will not continue their push for the roster. They sent Wander Suero, Rafael Bautista, and Jose Marmolejos to Class AAA Syracuse. They sent Bryan Harper, Jaron Long, and Jhonatan Solano back to minor league camp, too.
Suero might have made a push for the bullpen had he not pulled a muscle in his side last week. The right-hander, who was named the organization’s pitcher of the year last year, should be one of the first relievers called on should injury perforate the big league bullpen. Harper, meanwhile, heads back to minor league camp after his first days in major league camp. He is in his first spring training since undergoing Tommy John surgery, and Martinez said that as long as the lefty continues to rebuild his arm strength, he could renew the push for the big league roster that his torn ulnar collateral ligament cut short two years ago.
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