Nats have plan to be ready by Opening Day

March 30th, 2022

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- One week out from Opening Day, the Nationals’ game planning looks different at this point in Spring Training than in years past. The team is being creative (and flexible) in a lockout-condensed camp in order to get players the reps they need ahead of their first regular-season contest next Thursday afternoon against the Mets.

“I’m watching everybody’s swings, and their swings are just a tick behind still,” manager Dave Martinez said Wednesday, prior to the Nats’ 29-8 loss to the Cardinals at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. “They’re chasing, which tells me that their timing’s not right when they start chasing balls.”

Right fielder Juan Soto has been out of the lineup the past two exhibition contests to work on his timing away from game action. The slugger is 4-for-14 with one home run in his first seven Spring Training appearances. His objective: get ready early to avoid rushing.

Patience at the plate has been a virtue for the 23-year-old National League MVP runner-up. Last season, Soto led all players with 145 bases on balls (23 intentional). He also paced the league with a 15.1 percent chase rate, including an even more impressive 14.5 percentage after the All-Star break.

“As we all know, he’s got such a great eye. He’ll take his walks,” said Martinez. “But he still feels like right now, the pitches that he should be hitting, he’s not squaring them up. He’s missing them. He’s fouling them off. … It’s something that he and [hitting coach] Darnell [Coles] have talked about quite a bit, and he wants to work on it.”

Martinez anticipates that Soto will return to the lineup on Thursday night to face the Mets at Clover Park. That same day, first baseman Josh Bell is slated to get multiple at-bats on the back field of the Nationals’ training complex to address his timing. The switch-hitting Bell entered Wednesday hitting 2-for-21 before crushing his first home run of camp -- a three-run line drive to left.

“It was good to see him both right- and left-handed hit the ball like he did,” Martinez said. “He wants [the extra at-bats on Thursday]. But he said he felt a lot better.”

On the mound, not all pitchers have been able to get stretched out in traditional spring starts. In some instances, their ramp-ups have involved throwing in Minor League contests (such as the case of Josiah Gray) and intrasquad matchups (like with Paolo Espino and Josh Rogers). In the case of the Nationals’ No. 1 prospect Cade Cavalli, whom the Nationals view as a starter, they have been utilizing him at different points in the game to be able to see where he might fit within the big league schedule.

Cavalli has made three appearances in camp as the Nats weigh whether he will begin the season in the Majors to debut or in Triple-A to gain more experience. He threw his first spring outing on March 20, when he pitched out of the bullpen for the final three frames (zero runs, six strikeouts) against the Astros. Five days later, he got the nod to start vs. a Major League-heavy St. Louis lineup (three runs, three strikeouts).

Washington tabbed Cavalli to follow starter Aníbal Sánchez out of the ‘pen on Wednesday in hopes Cavalli him building up to four innings. Cavalli, who entered the game in the sixth, gave up 11 runs (10 earned) and fanned two in 2 1/3 frames, citing a more fastball-heavy afternoon.

“Whenever I get a chance on the mound and I’m given the ball, I’m given an opportunity to get outs -- that’s my sole focus,” Cavalli said. “I don’t really look at that [start vs. bullpen] too much, because once you get up there it’s you and the batter. I love starting. Obviously, you get to stay in your routine a little bit, and I’m still learning how to manage my time down there. I know the last time out of the ‘pen, I threw way too many pitches. I was starting too early, and I may have started too late today. Maybe if I get another chance out of the ‘pen, I’ll have good timing.”

The Nationals have five games, plus one scheduled off-day, remaining in Spring Training before they wrap up camp next Tuesday afternoon and head north to Washington, D.C.

“We’ve just got to get our work in and get ready for April 7,” Martinez said. “To me, that’s the ultimate goal right now, is to get ready for April 7 -- and it’s March 30.”