Results tagged ‘ Spring Training ’
The Washington Nationals enjoyed unprecedented success in 2012, recording the best record in Major League Baseball. The team relied on the contributions of many different players, whom we will catalogue throughout the offseason as we look ahead to the 2013 campaign. Today we look at perhaps the most surprising contributor this season, reliever Christian Garcia.
Most Nationals fans had never heard of Christian Garcia at the beginning of Spring Training. Nearly all knew his name by the time the 2012 season was over. An impressive stint as a September call-up gave Washington another promising power arm near the back of the bullpen. But you have to look beyond Garcia’s accomplishments once he got that call-up to understand just how good of a year he had already put together before ever reaching the Major Leagues in the first place.
In 58 relief appearances between Double-A Harrisburg, Triple-A Syracuse and Washington, the 27 year-old righty went 2-1 with a 1.11 ERA (8 ER/65.0 IP), converting all 21 of his save opportunities (all in the minors). He allowed just 58 baserunners (39 hits, 19 walks), good for a 0.89 WHIP, while striking out 81 batters, a rate of better than 11 per nine innings pitched. Those are the type of eye-popping, head-turning numbers that accompany an arsenal topped by a high 90s fastball and a late-breaking, hard-diving slider, like the one Garcia possesses when he is healthy.
Unfortunately, those last four words – when he is healthy – have followed Garcia around for much of his career and adversely impacted his Major League aspirations. Formerly a starter in the Yankees system, the 6’5” righty was originally drafted in the third round out of high school by New York back in 2004, but had never advanced beyond Triple-A. While his career Minor League numbers – a 3.22 ERA and 10.1 K/9 IP – showed his potential, Garcia had been sidelined with elbow trouble, undergoing not one, but two Tommy John surgeries to replace the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his right elbow.
While an often daunting rehab process awaits, with advancements in modern medicine, today’s pitchers have achieved remarkable recovery rates from a single Tommy John surgery. However, considering how crucial the UCL is to the success of a pitcher, it should come as no surprise that patients who have undergone multiple surgeries, as Garcia has, face an even more challenging road to recapturing their original form. For him to be pitching at all, much less to the degree of success he found in 2012, is already remarkable. It also explains why the Nationals were able to ever have the chance to sign a talent like Garcia to a minor league free agent deal in the first place.
There is some debate as to whether Garcia will return to a starter’s role in 2013, or work out of the bullpen. One thing is for sure – the Nationals found a diamond in the rough in Garcia, who will no doubt be a prime candidate to compete for a spot on the staff this spring.
At nearly 70 years of age, there isn’t much that Davey Johnson has yet to accomplish in the game of baseball. He has already won a World Series as both a player and a manager, one of just five living men to do so. Coming into 2012, he had skippered three different franchises to the playoffs. And yet, he managed to notch a whole bevy of firsts in his first full season at the helm of the Washington Nationals. For his efforts, he was rewarded with the second BBWAA Manager of the Year Award of his career.
He guided the franchise to a Major League-leading 98 wins, 17 more than the previous franchise high, set back in 2005. That success translated into the franchise’s first NL East title and Washington D.C.’s first postseason berth in 79 years. Mind you, of course, that while nobody else predicted such unprecedented success from the club, Johnson calmly and confidently told the baseball world exactly that – his team would be in the playoffs, all the way back before Spring Training began.
Despite a ton of early-season injuries to a good portion of his starting lineup, Johnson’s club either led the NL East or shared its top spot for all but 10 days this season. When the dust had settled, they owned the best run differential in Major League Baseball, outscoring their opponents by 137 runs over the course of the year.
Johnson, along with Executive VP of Player Personnel and GM Mike Rizzo, made the decision to keep Ross Detwiler in the Major League rotation at the end of Spring Training. That, along with the healthy returns of Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann and the additions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson gave the skipper the National League’s best rotation ERA at 3.40. Once fully healthy, his offense went on to produce 194 home runs, second most in the league, establishing both franchise (1969-‘12) and D.C. baseball (1901-‘71, 2005-‘12) single-season marks.
Johnson registered the seventh 90-win campaign of his managerial career and joined the legendary Billy Martin as the game’s lone skippers to take four different teams to the postseason. Since shifting from a consulting role and returning to the dugout to assume the Nationals managerial helm on June 27, 2011, Johnson’s Nationals are 138-107 (.563). Just how good has he been at guiding his young squad? In that same time span, only the Braves (139) have won more games among NL teams.
Among those to manage 1,000 or more games, Johnson’s career winning percentage (1,286-995, .564) ranks second among all living managers behind his former skipper, Earl Weaver (.583). He will have one more season to improve upon those impressive credentials, having agreed to manage the 2013 season before retiring from the bench, back to the Nationals front office in 2014.
Congratulations, Davey. We can’t wait to see what you have in store for your grand finale.
The Washington Nationals enjoyed unprecedented success in 2012, recording the best record in Major League Baseball. The team relied on the contributions of many different players, whom we will catalogue throughout the offseason as we look ahead to the 2013 campaign. Our list continues with veteran utilityman Mark DeRosa.
Statistics can tell us a lot in baseball, perhaps more so than in any other sport. Of the American “Big Four,” it is certainly the game that relies most heavily upon the numbers, over a large sample size, to determine success or failure, at least in the regular season. However, some players carry value in ways that are not generally quantifiable, bringing knowledge and expertise or even setting the tone of a clubhouse in a way that makes the players around them better. Mark DeRosa is one of those players.
A 15-year Major League veteran, DeRosa enjoyed his greatest success over a three-year span from 2006-08, playing for the Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs. He carried a .291/.368/.453 line while playing every position outside of the battery, providing a valuable, interchangeable piece for his managers. While his production on the field hasn’t reached those levels since a pair of surgeries on his wrist, he was still the top target on Davey Johnson’s offseason wish list heading into Spring Training in 2012.
Why DeRosa? He was on Johnson’s World Baseball Classic squad back in 2009, and left an indelible mark on the manager. Back in Spring Training, it was DeRosa – not a fellow hurler, or pitching coach Steve McCatty – who pulled Gio Gonzalez aside after a rough inning to make him aware of a mechanical flaw in the lefty’s delivery. Gonzalez would not allow another run the rest of the afternoon. Before Game 4 of the NLDS, it was DeRosa who spoke to the team, ad-libbing a colorful interpretation of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous The Man In The Arena speech. Johnson acknowledged his veteran utility man’s importance in that afternoon’s press conference.
“DeRosa’s been kind of a spokesperson the guys have looked up to,” Johnson said. “He’s been in [postseason] situations. He’s a real good baseball man.”
DeRosa is a free agent heading into 2013, and is, as of yet, unsure if he will return for another season. After the end of the season, he shared his thoughts on his uncertain future.
“I’m kind of in a weird state,” he told reporters. “I don’t know if this is the last time I put on a uniform. I don’t know if I’m okay with that yet. We’ll see. I’ll go home and listen.”
Whenever DeRosa’s playing days are done, it would not be surprising to see him transition into another side of the game, whether as a manager or broadcaster. An Ivy Leaguer (he was a two-sport star at the University of Pennsylvania), his intelligent, charismatic, witty delivery seems tailor-made to fill either the long summer nights in the booth or the ears of the next generation of players from the end of the dugout.
The closer you follow baseball, the more you realize how year-round the sport really is. The average American may take notice around Opening Day, then have their fandom tail off as their team is eliminated from contention, perhaps watching the World Series, if they are so inclined. The more passionate follower is more likely to count down the days until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training, their baseball awareness stretching from mid-February to the end of October. But for the true obsessives (like us), there are compelling games for the Nationals being played even now, as the Arizona Fall League began this week at the Spring Training complexes around Phoenix.
For those unfamiliar with it, the AFL is a prospect showcase, where all 30 Major League teams send some of their top talent, often including players whose regular seasons were limited for whatever reason, to see how they perform in a highly competitive environment. The 30 clubs are combined into six squads, with five MLB teams apiece represented on each. Last year, the Nationals were assigned to the Scottsdale Scorpions, with Bryce Harper the most well known representative of the organization. In 2012, they are members of the Salt River Rafters, along with the Diamondbacks, White Sox, Rockies and Blue Jays.
This year’s crop of Nationals prospects includes:
We will be conducting a more thorough Down on the Farm report for many of these prospects this offseason, but wanted to give special attention to one – Matt Skole – whom we have already profiled before here on Curly W Live. The 2012 Nationals Minor League Player of the Year, Skole has busted down the Fall League doors, batting .533/.650/.867 with two doubles, a home run and five RBI through his first four games on the circuit. His early success among some of baseball’s elite prospects helps back up the case that his tremendous 2012 numbers were no fluke. The third baseman batted .292 with 28 doubles, 27 home runs and 104 RBI in just 118 games between Low-A Hagerstown and High-A Potomac in his first professional season.
Make sure to check in to Curly W Live on Wednesdays throughout the offseason for more on many of the Nationals rising stars. And if you’d like to keep up with the AFL on a daily basis through the end of the season in mid-November, check out the home of the league here, complete with scores, stats, stories and more.
One of the names flying under the radar a bit in the Nationals Minor League system is switch-hitting infielder Zach Walters. Rated as the organization’s 12th-best prospect by MLB.com entering the season, Walters was acquired straight up from Arizona for right-hander Jason Marquis shortly before the 2011 non-waiver trade deadline. Originally a ninth-round selection from the 2010 First-Year Player Draft by the Diamondbacks, the infielder had not played above the Low-A Midwest League until coming over to the Nationals organization. That didn’t stop Washington from immediately promoting Walters to High-A Potomac, where he finished out the year with solid numbers, earning himself a call to the Arizona Fall League prospect showcase.
That performance earned him a couple of auditions as an extra man, joining the big league club for a few Spring Training games this March. On one notable occasion, Walters accompanied the club on a trip to St. Lucie to play a night game against the New York Mets. After entering the game off the bench in the late innings, Walters made a highlight-reel diving stop up the middle, capturing the attention of the press corps. However, shortly afterward he broke the hamate bone in his right hand, costing him the end of his spring and the first couple weeks of his season.
“It’s been a struggle,” explained Walters of the injury that stalled him early in the year. “Being hurt, you want to get back on the field as quickly as possible, even when you aren’t ready sometimes.”
The Cheyenne, Wyoming native got off to a slow start as he rehabbed from the injury, opening the year just 1-for-22 with 10 strikeouts at Potomac. But he recovered nicely and had a nine-game hitting streak going when he was promoted to Double-A Harrisburg in mid-June. The infielder continued to produce with the Senators, posting a .293/.326/.518 slash line with 21 of his 48 hits going for extra bases in his 43 games played, all at shortstop. That was enough to earn him a second in-season promotion to Triple-A Syracuse, where he is currently playing. Once he processed his time on the Disabled List, Walters was able to make the most out of the experience.
“I feel like it was a blessing in disguise,” he says of his early-season speed bump. “I got a chance to go over some little things and really appreciate being out here on the field.”
Still just 22 years of age, Walters does not have any one particular skill that jumps off the page, but he is solid across the board. Standing an athletic 6’2” and just under 200 pounds, the University of San Diego product’s best trait might be his maturity, both on and off the field. While his skill set and versatility profile more like Steve Lombardozzi’s, his build and athleticism are more evocative of that of current Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond. That combination of a solid work ethic, combined with an appreciation for his new organization have helped Walters move quickly through the system and raise his stock as a prospect.
“I’ve been thankful for everything this year,” said Walters. “It hasn’t been ‘work’ at all.”
With the recent promotion of both Bryce Harper and Tyler Moore, we have had to shelve our Down on the Farm pieces we were planning to roll out in April. We listened to your calls for a report on Destin Hood. In fact, we took them seriously enough that we decided to put it into print, and will have it for you in the next edition of Nationals Magazine, available in-park for all June and July home games. But we’ve also been sitting on another particular prospect watch piece for a couple of weeks. That turned out to be fortuitous timing for us, as the man in question – left-handed starter Danny Rosenbaum – has gone out in the meantime and proven exactly why he should be featured in this space, and why you should read all about him below.
Currently heading up the rotation at Double-A Harrisburg, Rosenbaum was pointed out to us by Director of Minor League Operations Mark Scialabba back in Spring Training. If the southpaw was under the radar before the season started, this former 22nd-round pick out of Xavier need not worry about that for long. Blessed with a low-90s fastball that he can both cut and sink, a curveball and a developing changeup, he has succeeded at every level of the system so far, and is opening eyes and making headlines in 2012.
Rosenbaum has quietly posted impressive numbers at every stop so far in the Minor Leagues. However, he’ll have a hard time staying a secret for much longer with the tear he’s on right now in the Eastern League. Following another sparkling start on Monday – in which he struck out five without a walk, allowing six hits over 7.0 scoreless frames – Rosenbaum’s 2012 numbers are bordering on the absurd. His ERA stands at 0.76 (3 ER/35.2 IP) and he has struck out 23 against just two walks. He leads his circuit in ERA, innings pitched and WHIP (0.70), and is currently in the midst of a 24.2-inning scoreless streak that stretches all the way back to April 13. Opponents had hit just .232 against the lefty in his career before this season; in 2012, they are batting just .180.
Since beginning his professional career with the Gulf Coast Nationals Rookie League team in 2009, the lefty has posted a sub-2.50 ERA at each stop along his path through the minors. He has been remarkably consistent along the way as well, carrying a BB/9 of around 2.5 and a K/9 above 7.0 at every level. Never a high strikeout pitcher, his strong K/BB ratio and a very low home run rate (just 13 allowed over 388.0 innings in his career) have allowed him to continue to succeed.
“Danny’s kind of a later round draft pick who came in here and put up numbers right away,” said Nationals Director of Player Development Doug Harris. “He had a chance to advance and he’s been challenged with his progression.”
Rated just 23rd in Baseball America’s preseason organizational rankings and sixth among left-handed pitchers (those numbers coming before four of those above him, including fellow southpaw Tom Milone, were traded to Oakland in the Gio Gonzalez deal), Rosenbaum has clearly exceeded outside expectations. But Scialabba suggests he may even be better than Milone, who is off to an excellent start out in Oakland.
“He compares with Milone physically,” said Scialabba. “But I think his stuff might even be a little better.”
In referencing a prospect, it always helps to try to make such comparisons, in order to help project the type of player he might become as he fully develops. When you are Jewish and left-handed, of which Rosenbaum is both, Sandy Koufax references are inevitable. There has been a deeper connection to the Dodger great than just that in Rosenbaum’s life, though, as he explains.
“Growing up you always heard about Sandy Koufax, who played at the University of Cincinnati,” he said, referencing the school the cross-town rival just a few miles down the road from Xavier. “People were always saying ‘Oh, there’s the next Sandy Koufax.’ It’s a real privilege to even be considered in the same sentence.”
A better recent comparison for Rosenbaum on the field might be Ted Lilly, a similarly-sized lefty with a strong cutter/curveball/changeup repertoire. Rosenbaum has actually posted better Minor League numbers in nearly every statistical category (save for strikeouts) than Lilly, who was twice an All-Star and posted double-digit win totals in nine consecutive Major League seasons. Lilly was a fairly low profile, 23rd-round pick by the Dodgers, but earned his way to the Major Leagues through his competitive, workman-like approach on the mound. While Rosenbaum was disappointed on draft day, he hopes to follow a similar path.
“I just used that as fuel for the fire, to really go out there and prove myself,” said the southpaw of his selection, which came 651 picks after the Nationals took Stephen Strasburg first overall in 2009. “It was a great situation, because there were all new front office people here. They came and talked to us and said ‘We don’t care if you’re a first-round draft pick or a 50th-round draft pick, everyone is right here,’” he recalled, holding his hand parallel to the ground to show that all players, regardless of their status as an amateur, would be evaluated by the same standards as professionals.
That came as a huge relief to Rosenbaum, who took the message to heart: for better or for worse, nothing you have done to this point matters. Coming off what he considered a disappointing final year at Xavier, it allowed him to have a new approach, one he has carried with him throughout his Minor League career.
“I just try to start each year over from the beginning,” he said. “If I have a good year, great, that’s awesome, but I just try to go back to Spring Training in better shape, with better conditioning, and better stamina than I had the year prior. That’s how I approach every offseason: just work harder than I did before.”
After proving himself over the past few years, Rosenbaum draws rave reviews from anyone and everyone in the Nationals front office. His tough mental approach has led him to become stronger physically as well, something that Harris believes will be the tipping point for his future success.
“He’s a strong-bodied kid,” explained Harris. “His body has continued to evolve. He has a better understanding of what he needs to do, particularly in his core and his lower half to allow him to be as successful as he can possibly be.”
That approach won’t change for Rosenbaum, who has seen his hard work translate not just into numbers, but more importantly, a shot at the ultimate goal of making the Major Leagues.
Spring Training can spoil you, with its temperatures that stay warm through the balmy evenings and its persistent sunshine. It’s perfect beach weather, even if you don’t have the time to actually enjoy the surf and sand. Despite the heavy travel and the general lack of off-days, there is a vacation-like quality about the whole process.
Of course, all of that ends today. Rather, it ended last night, when the team stepped off the charter from Ft. Myers, landing at Dulles at about 7:45pm. The temperature was a mild 60 degrees, but still a dozen degrees colder than the coldest anyone in camp had felt in weeks. It was a solemn but encouraging reminder that we were home, that the real season was about to begin. It will certainly get no warmer in Chicago on Thursday, as the 2012 campaign begins in earnest at the hallowed grounds of Wrigley Field.
Here’s a quick timeline of some of the notable events as Spring Training quietly came to its unofficial end (after all, there is one last exhibition game in D.C. Tuesday):
6:57am: We pull into Space Coast Stadium before dawn, as players, coaches and staff are already on the scene loading the moving van and the busses.
7:41am: Wheels rolling, we take off from Viera on our way to Ft. Myers, not to return until next February.
11:22am: After a long ride across the state of Florida, we arrive at beautiful, new JetBlue ballpark, also known as Fenway South, the spring home of the Boston Red Sox.
12:34pm: In Davey Johnson’s pregame press conference, he expresses his confidence in the team in both the near and long term. “I like our on-field product right now,” he said. “And it’s only going to get stronger.”
1:35pm: Aaron Cook throws the first pitch of the final Florida game of 2012 for the Nationals, a ball high to Roger Bernadina.
2:26pm: Danny Espinosa gets the Nationals on the board first with a solo home run, his second of the spring and his second in as many days.
3:46pm: Down in the clubhouse, we run into Chad Durbin. The reliever has just returned to the team after being with his wife, who delivered a healthy baby boy on Friday, and is running on almost no sleep. Regarding his outing, he quips, “I might have made a couple of mistakes. Not that I remember them.”
5:17pm: The game over, the buses have brought us literally across the street from the ballpark to the Southwest Florida International Airport, where we take off on the team charter to return to D.C.
7:42pm: It’s official, the 2012 Nationals have arrived in the Nation’s Capital for the first time. Well, almost. The charter actually lands at Dulles, where we meet another round of buses to get us home.
8:37pm: Just blocks from the ballpark, we pull off of 395 onto South Capitol Street, swinging around the elbow-shaped off ramp. To our right, in the dark, a lit-up field at the Randall Recreation Center is buzzing with activity. Two teams are playing baseball, adorned in their simple, slightly mismatched uniforms at a park with an all-dirt infield. The only spectators are a handful of parents and coaches; there are no grandstands, no electronic scoreboards, no walk-up music.
This is the game in its purest form, a humble reminder of the joy that can sometimes be lost in the grind of the Major League calendar. It is also a reminder that on fields big and small everywhere, baseball is ready to be played once more.
8:41pm: After a long day of travel and a longer month of preparation and anticipation, we’re finally home.
Hello Nationals Fans,
Is everyone counting backwards, like I am? Only three days until the April 5, 2012 Season Opener on Chicago’s north side.
But before we indulge ourselves with grandiose visions of Wrigley Field, Opening Week and of course our April 12 home opener against the Reds, I also want to mention how happy I am personally – as is my entire family – for our dear friend Stan Kasten, who along with Magic Johnson and Guggenheim Partners, agreed to purchase the Dodgers last week.
Upon getting word that this transaction was going through, I immediately called Stan, who was in New York signing the first wave of legal documents. He was elated and for good reason. Stan in Hollywood…a PERFECT match!
The Dodgers are a crown-jewel franchise with a special place historically in our game. Baseball is a better sport when the Dodgers are prominent. I am looking forward to seeing Stan – and hopefully meeting Magic – when we head west to Los Angeles to visit one of my favorite places in baseball, Dodger Stadium, starting on April 27.
Now, let’s put a wrap on the ‘12 Grapefruit League season, Davey Johnson’s first camp as Manager of the Nats.
Remember, Davey is a baseball lifer whose baseball life began as a Spring Training bat boy with our Senators in the early 1950’s. He had a vision and by spring’s end, I think it is safe to say this was the most competitive camp in Nationals history. And that competition stemmed largely from the strongest crop of minor leaguers we’ve ever had.
Davey knows that everything great in this game starts in Spring Training. Sure, there were some bumps along the way, and perhaps a few more injuries than we’d like to see. Prominent players like Michael Morse, Drew Storen, Chien-Ming Wang, Adam LaRoche and Rick Ankiel have all been a little banged up. But, the way I see it, better now than in May or June, right?
At the end of the day, a lot did go right. Easily, the best news of the spring came on Feb. 26 as the Nationals signed Ryan Zimmerman to a long-term contract extension. Ryan’s playing abilities are obvious, but he is also a true gentleman.
There is wonderful symmetry in knowing that the first draft selection (2005) in the history of the Nationals will be playing in D.C. for a long time, perhaps his entire career. There are just not enough star athletes that stay with one club, in one town, their entire careers.
The games started on March 2 with a 3-0 victory over D.C.’s own Georgetown University. Even with the loss, the young Hoyas were provided with a challenge and thrill they will never forget.
Rick Ankiel got his spring off to a great start as he hit an opposite-field homer against the Mets in his hometown of Port St. Lucie. I know it must have been gratifying for him to perform in front of family, friends and some of his former high school teachers and coaches.
Even though he will start the season in Syracuse, Corey Brown seemed to emerge from an injury-riddled 2011 season with a strong spring showing (.318, one homer, 4 RBI in 10 games). I bet he continues his good play in Syracuse.
Mark DeRosa showed everyone that his wrist was healthy, hitting .400+ for the spring. He also (jokingly) claims he set a Grapefruit League record with 10 walks in less than 50 plate appearances. I don’t know about that, but he was on base 2-3 times a game. He is going to be a real weapon for Davey.
Bryce Harper performed well on the field, but a minor injury temporarily slowed his momentum. That said, he showed all of the maturity needed to excel off the field. He managed loads of media requests and was always ready to play, the calf injury notwithstanding.
Bryce handled his option to Syracuse with true class, but at the same moment, he was charged up by Davey’s challenge to play center field. I have a feeling we will be seeing Bryce in D.C. in the not-too-distant future.
This spring, we enjoyed meeting Gio Gonzalez and watching him perform in our uniform for the first time. That curveball will be something I look forward to seeing once every five days for a long time to come. And the remainder of his repertoire was not too shabby either.
Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson will round out one of the hardest-throwing staffs in baseball. Both are quiet, both are competitors. Both are healthy and slot quite nicely into our rotation. And let’s not forget John Lannan who pitched very well this spring and Chien-Ming Wang, who was throwing so well prior to his hamstring injury. He is recovering nicely and will be another major piece for us as the season goes on.
And how about our bullpen? They picked up where they left off last season and now we have added Brad Lidge, one of the most accomplished relievers in the game today. I’d also like to note just how well Henry Rodriguez pitched. He was consistently outstanding from Day 1 of camp.
With all that said, I think the best sight of all this spring was Wilson Ramos behind the plate. I know how excited I was in seeing him for the first time, so I can only wonder how emotionally taxing his first week of camp was. There is something about the atmosphere created by teammates in a clubhouse setting. Wilson is back where he belongs, with us and in a Nationals uniform, safe and sound.
I sense Mike Rizzo’s off-season acquisitions, Davey’s confidence, and the unusually warm temps this spring have generated a strong buzz for Nationals baseball in D.C.
A strong start in April would certainly help the equation, but I keep reminding myself that it is a long season.
Thanks for your continued support Nats fans. Let’s play ball! It is finally time.
I’ll look forward to seeing everyone all season long at beautiful and picturesque Nationals Park.
The Nationals still have a couple days left in the Grapefruit League season before returning to D.C. Tuesday for their exhibition game against the Red Sox, but Saturday marked the end of the home season at Space Coast Stadium. The fans in Viera were treated to a good matchup, as Opening Day starter Stephen Strasburg took on the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals in the front half of a home-and-home, which will conclude Sunday in Jupiter. But the final home game of spring means much more than just what happens between the lines.
The Team Store is swamped with fans, taking advantage of the final day clearance items. All the familiar sounds of the ballpark can be heard one final time before they go into hibernation until next spring. From the entryway to the ballpark we hear the program vendor hollering his old standard: “Get your program here, only fiiiiiivvvve dollaaaarrrrs.”
Of course, we couldn’t say goodbye to Space Coast Stadium for the spring without paying tribute to the most recognizable man in the park, vendor Vincent R. While he supplies peanuts and water to the crowd, he is most well known for the other commodity that rests in his blue carry-tray.
“Ice cold beer!” he belts out across the ballpark, his booming voice echoing through the concrete bowl, soliciting laughter from newcomers and regulars alike. “Beer that is cold and in ice!”
His line is so well-known around these parts that the stadium PA booth will, on occasion, play a sound effect of a carbonated beverage pouring into a glass after Vincent delivers it. Every ballpark has its nuances, the quirks that make it unique. Space Coast Stadium wouldn’t be what it is without Vincent, who received a standing ovation from the crowd after being recognized during Friday night’s game against the Marlins. After all, this is his 12th season here in Viera, where he began working at just 13 years of age.
For Kelley Wheeler – the Business Operations Manager of the Single-A Brevard County Manatees, who call Space Coast Stadium home during the season – the transition is bittersweet. As the Manatees are a Brewers affiliate, Wheeler and her team have to transition the entire ballpark, from the signage on the walls and scoreboard to the merchandise in the Team Store, all in a 72-hour period to get ready for their first fan event on Wednesday evening. There are no lingering memories, just an extensive overhaul to shift from the very different worlds of Major League Spring Training and the Minor League regular season.
But the end of spring means the beginning of the real season. The laid-back nature of camps in Florida and Arizona give way to the daily intensity and scrutiny of the national media spotlight in major cities all around the country. That pressure is a good thing, though. It only exists because, beginning in just a few days, the games will count. And for the Nationals, in 2012, that’s a good thing.
There was something about Wednesday’s contest against the Mets in Port St. Lucie that felt a little more real than the previous games leading up to it. Fans who have followed the team closely, through the end of last year and the offseason additions over the winter, understand this. The Nationals were guided in this contest by their great pitching, with Jordan Zimmermann starring in the lead role, tossing six innings of two-hit, scoreless ball. Runs were at a premium, with only Ryan Zimmerman’s sacrifice fly in the third and Jayson Werth’s solo home run in the fourth bringing anything other than goose eggs to the scoreboard through the first six frames.
When Lucas Duda’s chopper escaped the leaping reach of Chad Tracy at first and rattled down amongst the bullpen chairs, allowing Jason Bay to score all the way from first, it was obvious this would be one of those nail-biters. Even in Spring Training, the crowd was very much involved in the result. You could feel the sway of emotions as the Nationals scored in the top of the eighth to re-establish the two-run cushion, only to have the Mets close the gap to one again with a run in the bottom half.
Even without Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen in their familiar eighth and ninth inning roles, the bullpen acquitted itself nicely. Henry Rodriguez, locking up his second save in three days, got some help on a nice diving catch by Corey Brown in right,. It all incorporated the feel of a regular season, intra-division game, full of drama up until the final out was recorded. It was the type of game many of those who follow the organization expect to see the team play this year – well pitched, low scoring and close. All in all, it almost felt like the regular season.
After all, sitting to our right in the press box was a trio of Spanish broadcasters, announcing (live?) into their microphones about happenings around Mets camp. We picked out names like Ronny Cedeno and Johan Santana, and even a “los Nacionales de Washington.” With all the commotion in the box, we almost missed the fact that Ian Desmond’s four-hit game makes him 11-for-his-last-26.
To clear our heads, we went down to field level to watch Rodriguez put the finishing touches on this one. The Venezuelan has quietly put together a very impressive spring campaign, holding the opposition scoreless in all nine of his outings, allowing just three hits and two walks while fanning seven over 9.0 innings of work. His success in smoothly converting both save opportunities presented to him this week can only help his chances of officially stepping into the closer role until Storen’s return.
We’ve officially hit the home stretch of Spring Training, with just six games left before the season officially begins a week from Thursday (!) at Wrigley Field. Here are the Nationals spring results to date:
vs. Georgetown (exhibition) – W, 3-0
@ Houston – L, 3-1
vs. Houston – L, 10-2
@ New York (NL) – W, 3-1
@ Atlanta – W, 5-2
vs. St. Louis – T, 3-3
vs. Houston – W, 8-0
@ Miami – L, 3-0
vs. New York (NL) – W, 8-2
@ Detroit – T, 5-5
@ St. Louis – Canceled (rain)
vs. St. Louis – W, 8-4
vs. Detroit – L, 6-3
@ Atlanta – L, 6-5
vs. New York (AL) – L, 8-5
@ New York (AL) – L, 4-3 (10)
vs. Miami – T, 1-1
vs. Detroit – L, 11-7
@ New York (NL) – L, 2-0
vs. Atlanta – L, 3-2 (10)
@ St. Louis – L, 9-0
@ Houston – L, 5-1
@ Baltimore – L, 12-3
vs. New York (NL) – W, 12-0
vs. Houston – W, 7-4
@ Miami – L, 3-1
@ New York (NL) – W, 3-2
Split Squads Thursday: vs. Atlanta, 1:05pm, @ Detroit, 6:05pm
Overall Record: 8-14-3