Washington Nationals' manager Davey Johnson cleared up the two remaining questions heading into Monday's season opener following the Nats' 4-2 loss to the New York Yankees in the final exhibition game this afternoon. 26-year-old right-hander Henry Rodriguez claimed the final spot on the roster and in the bullpen and it will be Wilson Ramos behind the plate catching Stephen Strasburg on Opening Day. Johnson had all-but announced that Rodriguez would make the pen before the team left Florida this week, but had any issues with his elbow cropped up, veteran lefty J.C. Romero remained a possible option. After Rodriguez threw a scoreless inning in relief in today's game, the Nats' 70-year-old skipper made it official.
"Well you know the roster," Johnson joked with reporters. "So Henry made the team?" a reporter asked. "Yeah," Johnson said, "I told you he'd come around."
Rodriguez struggled with his control once again this Spring, but the Nats' manager said all along that it had more to do with all the time off the right-hander had following surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow last summer. In front of 38,161 in Nationals Park today, Rodriguez provided yet another tantalizing glimpse of why the Nats are willing to let him work things out. As Johnson told reporters before the Spring finale, when Rodriguez is healthy, "... he's got three off-the-chart big league pitches." The high-90's heater and devastating slider were both working against the Yankees, though he did walk one batter in his 14-pitch, nine-strike inning of work.
"He's got outstanding stuff," Johnson reiterated, "Fastball, changeup, breaking ball and he only started getting a little wild last year when he started... I'm sure that elbow was bothering him when he had a big bone chip in there, but I knew he hasn't had much in the way of which he's had his whole life, [with] Winter ball, missed half a season, so he's not somebody you can give up on easy."
Asked if anyone had tried to get Rodriguez to back off a little and maybe throw his heater at 94-95 instead 97-100, Johnson said that trying to back off actually causes problems. "Part of the problem," the Nats' skipper explained, "He backs off and tries to get it over, I mean, him backing off [means] from 100 [mph] down to 94 [mph], you know, but it takes a little while to get all in sync and I think he's awfully close right now."
"Do you settle for him just being 'effectively wild'?" Johnson was asked in today's postgame. "When you throw that hard and you do occasionally let one go, [opposing hitters] are not comfortable in there, no one's comfortable. Ask the second baseman for the Braves [Dan Uggla] how he feels about it?" [ed. note: "That is, I believe, a two-year-old reference, by the way, with Johnson referring to the time Henry Rodriguez threw a high-90's fastball behind Dan Uggla's head back in 2011."]
"He's a good weapon," Johnson said.
The Nationals' manager then segued into a discussion about the situation behind the plate, and which catcher would start on Opening Day. "[Wilson Ramos] is going to catch the Opener," Johnson said, "And [Kurt] Suzuki's going to catch Gio [Gonzalez] in the second game. And they'll be alternating."
The decision to give Ramos the nod on Opening Day after working his way back from last season's torn ACL and meniscus was made in part because Johnson wants Suzuki and Gonzalez to work together and in part because of the hard work Ramos has put in to get back behind the plate sooner than expected this Spring. "With the progress [Ramos] has made after rehabbing himself after [surgery last May]," the Nats' skipper explained, "[He's] been out all year, been rehabbing hard and he's looked great all Spring, both [at and] behind the dish, he's bouncing around better than I've seen him in the years that I've been here and just kind of a 'carrot' for hard work."
"But I can look at them both as no.1 catchers," Johnson said.
"From Day 1 catching in the pen, catching pitchers, [Ramos] looked great," the Nationals' bench manager said, "he only thing that held him back were the doctors saying, 'We've got to see him slide.' So he's had to slide more than anybody else on the club. But he's, just the way he's blocked the ball and then pounced on it after he blocked it, which told me everything I needed to know that he was in great shape."
So the Nats' Opening Day Lineup (barring any setbacks, hiccups, etc.):
1. Denard Span - CF
2. Jayson Werth - RF
3. Bryce Harper - LF
4. Ryan Zimmerman - 3B
5. Adam LaRoche - 1B
6. Ian Desmond - SS
7. Danny Espinosa - 2B
8. Wilson Ramos - C
9. Stephen Strasburg - Ace
Strasburg talked to reporters before the game about his Opening Day start in D.C. More from the 24-year-old right-hander to come later...