Before Monday night’s Nationals-Mets tilt in Port St. Lucie – the second between the two clubs in the same location in just over 48 hours – skipper Davey Johnson mused aloud that teams with good Minor League depth often posted strong Spring Training records. If the game itself was any indication, Johnson, who relishes the opportunity to see such players in person, must have liked what he saw.
Led by a bevy of rising stars, the Nationals impressed at the plate and on the mound as they notched their first Grapefruit League win, by a 6-4 final.
The logic behind Johnson’s reasoning stemmed from the heavy innings that non-regulars log during the Grapefruit League season, and never was that circumstance more on display for the Nats. With a starting nine featuring just one 2012 Opening Day roster member in Steve Lombardozzi (plus Gio Gonzalez pitching), Washington’s youngsters peppered New York pitchers all around Tradition Field to the tune of 17 hits in a victory that was never as close as the final score indicated.
Outfielder Eury Perez leaned on his strongest tool – his speed – to accumulate a trio of infield singles and a stolen base, scoring from first on a double in the third and from second on a single in the fourth. Anthony Rendon, vying for a home run for the second straight day, was robbed of a longball at the center field fence, but later lined a seed the opposite way for a single. Eight of the nine starters pitched in hits, with Nationals 2012 Minor League Player of the Year Matt Skole demolishing a double to the wall in right-center in his first at-bat.
On the mound, Skole’s counterpart Nathan Karns – Washington’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year – turned in perhaps the most noteworthy performance. Following two hitless innings from Gonzalez in his first spring start, Karns fanned Ike Davis, Mike Baxter and top Mets prospect Travis d’Arnaud, allowing only a David Wright flare single over two scoreless innings.
“He’s got a great future,” said Johnson of Karns, whom he saw live in game action for the first time Monday night. “He had an explosive fastball, threw first pitch strikes. Very impressive for the young man.”
Karns overthrew a couple of curveballs early, but settled in and spun a beauty to put away d’Arnaud. He attributed the early inconsistency on the pressure of facing Major Leaguers for the first time.
“Yeah, I was a little nervous in the ‘pen, I’m not going to lie,” Karns said of the experience, but he took Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty’s advice between innings. “Breathe, breathe. I guess I was a little red in the face, a little sweaty.”
Karns’ stuff played just fine, his fastball sitting 93-96 with great life. When asked if that was a normal velocity range, he was non-committal, but referenced his offseason conditioning program.
“I was around there last year,” he said of his fastball velocity. “This year I felt like I did a lot in the offseason to strengthen my lower body, give me some more endurance. So if I get a couple more ticks on the radar, that’s a bonus.”
One veteran in the clubhouse within earshot took notice.
“A couple more ticks?” interrupted Ryan Mattheus, who earned the save with a scoreless ninth, incredulously from the corner of the clubhouse. “What do you want, to throw 105?”
The radar gun at Tradition Field actually misfired and flashed 143 miles-per-hour after one high fastball out of the 25-year-old’s right hand.
“Yeah, I can say I threw 143,” Karns said nonchalantly.
It’ll be a story for the grandkids.
The Nationals hit the road again Tuesday afternoon, where they will face the division-rival Braves for the first time this spring at 1:05 p.m. in Lake Buena Vista.
2/23 @ New York (NL) – L, 5-3
2/24 vs. Miami – T, 2-2
2/25 @ New York (NL) – W, 6-4