WASHINGTON -- And, scene.
Spring training is over. Bryce Harper didn’t arrive. Nor did Craig Kimbrel, Dallas Keuchel or camels. Tony Sipp did.
Injuries are limited: Howie Kendrick’s hamstring is healing rapidly, Michael A. Taylor’s knee and hip sprains are improving. Thursday’s 25-man Opening Day roster won’t include either. But, they should be back in the short-term as opposed to the long-term. Say they aren’t ready to play for another week, setting them to debut April 2. That means they miss just three games to start the season.
The Nationals are off Tuesday, have a workout Wednesday, then face Jacob deGrom, new owner of a reported five-year, $137.5 million extension, in Thursday afternoon’s opener. Which makes this a good time to go through spring training leftovers, thoughts and storylines that were under the radar or worth discussing again.
How long until Williams steals a bullpen spot?
Austen Williams’ first week in the major leagues taught him just how significant fluctuations can be at that level. He threw two scoreless innings in a Sept. 2 debut last year. Two days later, Williams recorded two outs and gave up three home runs. Such a prompt kick to the teeth temporarily squelched the joy of being in the majors.
“That was an unfortunate way for me to learn,” Williams told NBC Sports Washington. “You’d like to not have it quite that bad. Though after it’s all said and done, it’s a good thing to learn from.”
The outing taught Williams he needed to figure out how to throw the baseball in the majors -- the ball is physically different than the minor-league ball. The outing also showed him what major-league hitters can do against a fastball.
The baseball’s seams are lower in the majors, making it tougher to grip and control. Williams’ odd spike curveball grip, where he folds his index finger and has multiple other light contact points with the ball, made it all the trickier.
So, he spent the offseason working with the major-league ball. He also realized a simple truth: throwing your best pitch often provides the best chance for success. In Williams’ case, it’s his curveball.
Which led to this spring’s results: zero runs allowed, .083 batting average against, almost a strikeout per inning.
“Obviously, giving up no earned runs or no runs period is better than I expected,” Williams said. “Sometimes you can’t help giving up runs no matter how good you pitch. It was pretty awesome. I expected that of myself, honestly, or similar to that. I knew I had the skill and pitching and everything combined to pitch well in the big leagues.”
Which brings up the future roster question. Williams was sent to Triple-A Fresno on Tuesday morning. Which means Sean Doolittle, Trevor Rosenthal, Matt Grace, Wander Suero, Jeremy Hellickson (for now), Justin Miller, Kyle Barraclough and Sipp are in. Williams will be waiting in California.
The Jake Noll story rolls on
The Nationals cut utility infielder Adrian Sanchez on Tuesday. The aforementioned Kendrick will be on the roster once healthy to work as a right-handed bat. Without him, the Nationals need one. That’s where Jake Noll comes in.
Noll, a 2016 seventh-round pick and Ryan Zimmerman doppelganger, arrived at spring training likely to be cut when the team made its first decisions. His hitting kept him around. He hit some more, so he stayed longer. Progressively, the lockers to Noll’s left and right were emptied out, leaving him on a wooden island once the team finished in Florida.
Monday, he walked into Nationals Park for the first time in his life at 12:15 pm. Noll checked out the weight room, gawked at the size of the clubhouse, then went to his new locker with a formal nameplate and “71” above it.
“It’s crazy, man,” Noll told NBC Sports Washington. “Definitely cool. I can’t really put it into words. It’s awesome.”
The Nationals have an open spot on the 40-man roster. They expect to carry five bench players Thursday when the games begin: Matt Adams, Kurt Suzuki, Andrew Stevenson and Wilmer Difo are four of them. Noll, who can play first, second and third, appears in line for the final spot.
This was not expected in early February. If Noll was told then how it would be now?
“I don’t know,” Noll said Monday. “Wouldn’t have shocked myself, but I would bet it would shock a bunch of other people. I knew I could play here. But guess I just had to prove it to everyone else.”
A few spring thoughts, observations and insights:
- Brian Dozier’s defense already stands out. His movement and smoothness would be notable in a general sense. It’s even more prominent when compared to Daniel Murphy’s in-field struggles, particularly last season. Murphy was an offensive weapon for two of his three seasons in Washington. His defense, despite significant work, was subpar when healthy. It dove further last season. Dozier fits with the Nationals’ claim their defense should be so improved this season “runs saved” will become a significant factor for them.
- Anibal Sanchez is throwing a changeup with such effect Statcast labels it a “splitter.” Sanchez struck out Aaron Judge and Luke Voit with the pitch Monday. He also, in essence, struck out Giancarlo Stanton with the changeup. Sanchez’s “tunneling” of his fastball and the changeup to right-handers allows a masking of the pitches. The speed gap is modest -- about seven mph -- but the late down-and-in action of the changeup after traveling the same path as the fastball for an extended period makes the combination lethal. Stanton struck out looking on a 91-mph fastball. Why? Because he thought it was the changeup, which would break out of the zone. It never did.
- Spring training fun was limited to cards in the clubhouse and a few eventful early days in the “Circle of Trust.” Otherwise, the general tone was more serious than last year when Martinez brought in props to combat any mental hangover from losing in the playoffs. “There’s been a renewed sense of optimism and purpose throughout our whole camp,” Doolittle said.
- If one spring storyline unified everyone it was Aaron Barrett’s ongoing comeback. Barrett pitched from the Nationals Park mound on Monday for the first time since Aug. 5, 2015. Sanchez waited for him on the mound to hand the ball over. Martinez said postgame he has to catch his emotions each time Barrett takes another step in his return from Tommy John surgery and a fractured elbow. Barrett kept a can of WD-40 in his locker throughout the spring for jokes, claiming he put it to use if the plates or screws in his elbow acted up. He’s throwing 92 mph, his slider is solid and Barrett will head to the minor leagues knowing the spring allowed him to check several more boxes in his unlikely comeback. Martinez thinks Barrett could be in the major leagues this season.
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