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By Andrew Simon
VIERA, Fla. — Saturday’s Grapefruit League contest between the Nationals and Braves at Space Coast Stadium featured two teams that figure to be fighting each other for the National League East title. But after a brisk first two innings from starters Jordan Zimmermann and Julio Teheran, the game devolved into a sloppy affair that lasted three hours, 59 minutes and featured 31 runs, 37 hits, 14 walks, six errors and numerous misplays.
For what it’s worth, the Nats outlasted the Braves, 16-15. Here are some notes and observations from a long and crazy day at the ballpark:
— Zimmermann was on point, throwing 15 of his 20 pitches for strikes and getting five ground balls in six batters during two scoreless innings. As mentioned in today’s notebook, Zimmermann mixed in some nice changeups, a part of his repertoire that that he has developed very gradually in recent years.
— Bryce Harper played his first game of the spring, going four innings in left field and taking three plate appearances. He lined out sharply to first base, walked twice and stole a base.
— The Nats went 3-for-3 on steals in the third inning, with Denard Span stealing one on his own before pulling off a double steal of third and second with Harper. New manager Matt Williams wants his players to run the bases more aggressively, and they appear to be doing that in the early going.
— Most of the Nats pitchers after Zimmermann had a tough time, but veteran righty Luis Ayala — competing for one the last two bullpen spots — stopped the bleeding. He came in to protect a one-run lead with one out and the bases loaded in the eighth and induced an inning-ending double play, then pitched a scoreless ninth for the save. Ayala is a sinkerball artist who posted an excellent 59 percent groundball rate last season, mostly with Atlanta.
“He’s a guy that can have really quick innings,” Williams said. “An aggressive opposition, ball sinking down and in, a lot of ground balls. So that’s why we’re considering him and that’s why he’s here and it was a perfect situation today for him.”
— Michael Taylor, who is considered a strong defensive prospect in center field, had a rough day after entering the game in right. He made two errors on one play to allow Matt Lipka to circle the bases on a bloop hit down the line and later dropped a line drive into the right-center gap.
“We want to make sure he gets some reps out there,” Williams said. “Today’s a rough day for any right fielder, but he’ll get some more reps out there, too.”
Tomorrow: The Nats are back at Space Coast to take on the Marlins at 1:05 p.m. Doug Fister will start in his Washington debut, and fellow newcomer Jerry Blevins is scheduled to pitch as well. Jayson Werth is supposed to play for the first time this spring.
Looking ahead: Ross Detwiler will start against the Yankees on Monday in Tampa, and Stephen Strasburg will take the ball against the Braves on Tuesday in Lake Buena Vista. That would leave Gio Gonzalez as the one expected member of the rotation yet to pitch.
Worth noting: Although he called Saturday’s defensive sloppiness an “aberration,” Williams said his club will address the issue in a previously scheduled situational defense practice on Sunday.
Worth quoting: While passing a group of reporters in a hallway shortly after the game, Nats coach Mark Weidemaier, who is in charge of the club’s defense, quipped, “Coached the [heck] out of ‘em today!”
Further reading: Today’s notebook on Nationals.com also includes info on how Danny Espinosa will split his time between second base and shortstop this spring, the approach Williams wants prospect Zach Walters to take at the plate, and lefty Tyler Robertson aiming for a bullpen job.
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