- - Sunday, March 4, 2018


WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. — Or this dateline could have been Port St. Lucie, Fla. Either way, it would have meant covering a Washington Nationals game.

Sunday was one of those unique spring training creations — the team playing two games at the same time, known as “split squad” games.

In West Palm Beach, it was against the Tigers. In Port St. Lucie, it was against the Mets. Of course, while both teams may be wearing Washington Nationals uniforms, only one looks anything like the team that you’ll see on Opening Day March 29 in Cincinnati against the Reds.

That one stayed home here at the Nationals spring training complex, the home team facing the Tigers — who were also playing split-squad games Sunday. The team they sent to West Palm Beach, like the one the Nationals sent on the road, was not the “A” team.

It’s not a reward to be sent on the road for a split-squad game, which helps fill out the spring training schedules and gives teams a closer look at minor league prospects.

“The veteran guys you want to try to take care of,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “You don’t want to put them on a bus if you have a home game. You’d rather them get the work and stay at home.”

But somebody has to draw the short straw. Major League Baseball rules dictate that a team has to send four “legitimate” major league players on the road to a split-squad game, based on a formula of playing time the previous season.

However, one of the gifts manager Dusty Baker left behind was a roster full of players who saw a lot of time on the field in 2017, widening the pool of candidates beyond the regulars.

One of the Nats that got on the bus for the hour-long trip to Port St. Lucie was starting shortstop Trea Turner. “Trea’s making the trip — yes. We had to split them up somehow, someway. He’s one of the young guys, so….”

Michael Taylor, the starting centerfielder, made the trip as well, along with Brian Goodwin and Wilmer Difo, all of whom saw significant playing time last season.

I asked Anthony Rendon, a five-year veteran, when was the last time he went on a split-squad game. He looked at me like I had two heads. Then again, I get that look a lot.

Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances. Two-time American League Most Valuable Player winner Miguel Cabrera was in the lineup Sunday for Detroit. Now, their training complex is in Lakeland — three hours away from West Palm Beach. But Cabrera’s home is nearby, so it gives him the opportunity to be home for a day or two.

The way Martinez and the staff select the two teams is they conduct a draft of sorts, based on available players. Bench coach Chip Hale managed the road split-squad players

“I gave him (Chip) the option,” Martinez said. “You could stay at home or go on the road. He said, ‘No, I’ll go on the road.’ But I don’t mind. I’ve done it my whole career. It doesn’t bother me.”

Yes, Martinez was the kind of veteran player split squads are made for — a role player looking to increase playing time and get as much work in as possible.

“I was the road warrior,” said Martinez, who played for nine major league teams over his 16-year-career. “I just wanted to get my at-bats. But I did wear a lot of grays (road uniforms).”

Sunday’s split-squad draft got a little confusing. Martinez thought Hale was taking top outfield prospect Juan Soto on the trip. It turned out, though, he was staying in West Palm Beach.

“I had to give up something,” Martinez said. “Chip wanted to take him with him. But I’ll get a chance to see him play. I heard he’s a pure hitter. I think he is going on the road. We argued about it.”

When he learned that a switch had been made — and Soto would be on Martinez’s roster today — he was pleased. He got two at=bats, striking out and grounding out — but the 19-year-old clearly has a presence about him.

After striking out in his first at-bat Sunday, Martinez said he told Soto, “Welcome to the big leagues. Keep swinging. He’s going to be a good one.”

Soto said he was perhaps a little too excited. “It was a little difficult,” he said. “I tried to do too much in my first at-bat. The nerves kind of took over.”

The “A” team in West Palm Beach represented well against the split-squad Tigers, winning 6-2 (the “B” team won as well in Port St. Lucie, 7-3 over the Mets). Bryce Harper was in the outfield for the first time since his ingrown toenail treatment.

He wasn’t happy with his first at-bat, struck out by Detroit starter Alex Wilson. He had a problem with a called strike by home plate umpire Tom Woodring, and had words with him.

The next time up, Harper took a page from the fight game — don’t leave the decision up to the judges. He sent a ball deep over the right-field fence into the wind for a two-run home run, his first of the spring, nearly clearing the bullpen.

He followed that up with an opposite-field RBI single.

Washington starter Gio Gonzalez was hit hard, giving up two runs on six hits over three innings — 53 pitches, 33 strikes. It might have been worse, but Nationals outfielder Andrew Stevenson threw out Cabrera at the plate in the first inning. But no walks for Gonzalez — his trademark burden.

Backup first baseman Matt Adams went 3 for 3, including a triple. Remarkably, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Adams once had five triples in 2014 in St. Louis.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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