JUPITER, Fla. — The final two innings of the Nationals’ 2-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday felt less like a spring training game, more like the real thing.
From the use of closers for both teams to the tie game they had played to that point — both using strong starting pitching performances — there wasn’t much about it manager Davey Johnson didn’t like.
“It doesn’t get any better than that, boys,” Johnson yelled as the team came off the field and marched into the visitors clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium.
“We haven’t had those situations come up (this spring),” Johnson said. “Where every pitch is important. That’s baseball. I love baseball. I love it when it gets tense like that. I like every pitch. Every little thing just intensifies it. Regardless of whether we were successful at it or fail at it, that’s baseball.”
On this day, though, his team was successful and that was all the more reason for him to smile. Opening Day is four days away now and finally the Nationals played a game with a little feeling like real baseball was on its way.
“You drive two hours, you might as well try and win the game,” said Mark DeRosa, who drove in the winning run. “A lot of guys did good things today… All around good win. You’re starting to see, like playing against the Marlins the other night, a regular season game. I know guys don’t have that same drive and same fire but it’s getting close.”
There was Henry Rodriguez, being the same utterly dominant pitcher he has been all spring. He surrendered just an infield hit in a 1-1 game in the bottom of the eighth but using a pitch sequence that manager Davey Johnson was raving about later, he struck out Tyler Greene to end the threat.
“Just the pitch selection, going after it, the way Ramos worked him, all that,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Asked for his opinion of Rodriguez on this day, all Nationals third base coach Bo Porter could do was whistle low. “That’ll send someone to retirement,” he said.
And then there were singles by Danny Espinosa (who’d homered earlier in the day) and Roger Bernadina, setting up DeRosa to send Espinosa sliding into home with the winning run in the top of the ninth with a single to right field. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny came out to argue, Johnson was practically giddy.
“If that doesn’t get your motor running nothing will,” Johnson said.
– Gio Gonzalez was superb in his final spring start. He takes the mound Saturday at Wrigley Field for the Nationals’ second game of the season. Gonzalez made four of his final five starts at Roger Dean Stadium and three of his spring starts against the Cardinals.
Perhaps it was an intricate knowledge of their lineup that aided him Sunday, but he set down the first nine hitters he faced and the only time he didn’t look dominant was when the Cardinals hit back-to-back doubles to open the fourth.
And that may have been from all the added adrenaline he had pumping after knocking a single up the middle — his first hit, he estimated, since high school.
“(Carlos) Beltran told me, ‘At least round the base. Don’t stop.’ I was laughing, I was like, ‘I ain’t getting off this bag.’ It’s my first hit.”
Gonzalez was practically euphoric after getting the hit. Even when shortstop Ian Desmond hit into a double play one batter later, Gonzalez came up smiling, shaking his batting helmet triumphantly and high-fiving Porter on his way off the field.
As far as his pitching goes, Gonzalez estimated he was about 95 percent ready to go and he expected the final five percent to hit him when he gets to Chicago and gets into the atmosphere of the regular season. He threw 81 pitches on Sunday and he’ll get an extra day of rest before his first start.
“The last two starts, I was real happy,” Gonzalez said. “Going in with a certain amount of pitches, going the distance a bit, knowing they pulled me out even with the amount of pitches I wanted. So definitely, it was a step to the right direction with my last two starts. And especially after what the Cardinals did to me (in my fourth start), it was a good learning curve for me that finally I tuned it up a little bit and worked on the thing I needed to work on.”
– Danny Espinosa hit his first home run of the spring on Sunday, an opposite field shot off left-hander Jaime Garcia. Most of Espinosa’s at-bats this spring have come from the left side of the plate. He’s had just 21 opportunities to hit left-handed pitching and while so much has been made of his splits against right-handers, it was good progress for him to do what he did against a lefty.
“That home run felt really good,” Espinosa said. “It’s a little difficult (heading into the season with just 21 right-handed at-bats). I’ve got to get some right-handed at-bats.
“To be able to get three at-bats today against a left-hander felt really good. Just to see the ball right-handed. I got to see a few early in spring right-handed, but I wasn’t feeling good. I felt jumpy. To get three at-bats in a row, I felt real good.”
– The Nationals reassigned catcher Carlos Maldonado to minor league camp Sunday afternoon. Maldonado earned a big fan in Johnson this spring but with the Nationals having Jesus Flores and Wilson Ramos at the major league level there was never a chance for him to make the team.
He’ll go to Triple-A Syracuse and serve as the backup for Jhonatan Solano. Solano is younger and still developing so most of the playing time will go to him.
“I hate to lose him,” Johnson said. “He’s been like my favorite chair.”