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J.C. Romero looked sharp in his first Nats appearance last night.
As the spring played out and several potential contenders either succumbed to injury (Christian Garcia) or were shipped to minor-league camp (Bill Bray, Will Ohman), that roster spot appeared not to be up for grabs at all. The job would go to Henry Rodriguez.
But as the clock winds down on the longest camp in franchise history, the Nationals aren't talking about Rodriguez's status with any level of certainty. And after the right-hander endured though yet another erratic outing last night, only to watch as the recently signed J.C. Romero cruised through a 1-2-3 inning of relief, there's reason to wonder whether this spot really is up for grabs after all with less than 72 hours remaining in camp.
Start with Rodriguez, who has been all over the map this spring, then was held back on Sunday due to elbow soreness, according to manager Davey Johnson. Rodriguez, though, explained to Johnson he didn't experience the soreness when pitching, only when stretching. So he was back on the mound last night in Kissimmee.
At which point he threw seven straight balls to open the bottom of the fifth, nearly decapitating Astros DH Rick Ankiel with one of them.
"He had me worried again," Johnson said. "But he threw the ball good. He was a lot better."
Indeed, Rodriguez somehow managed to right the ship and wound up retiring the next three batters he faced, striking out two.
So what now for the enigmatic right-hander? Johnson wants him to appear in at least two of the Nationals' final four exhibition games.
What about the elbow, which was operated on last summer? Johnson masterfully danced around the subject when asked if it's guaranteed Rodriguez will make the Opening Day roster.
"Like I said, he didn't have much of a ... he was out the whole year. He didn't have any winter ball. He had the operation. He's going to take some time," the manager said. "I think his arm is feeling pretty good. But power pitchers always have a problem. Every spring I've ever had them. And with what he went through in the winter, he's behind everybody. But he'll get it. When he gets it over, he's nasty."
Now, contrast that long-winded and ambiguous answer with what Johnson had to say about Romero after the veteran left-hander retired the side in the eighth inning of his first game with the Nationals.
Said Johnson: "He looks ready to me."
Romero, signed to a minor-league contract on Friday with no assurances of making the club, was pleased with his outing. Having already pitched in winter ball and for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, he insists he's good to go despite an obviously abbreviated spring.
"I'm ready," he said. "I feel ready. I'm healthy. And as long as I'm healthy, the amount of innings you need to get ready for the start of the season, that can change. For me, not only playing winter ball but also playing in the World Baseball Classic, pretty much I didn't stop throwing the whole year. So it's carrying over. I feel good. I feel real good."
Could Romero swoop in at the last minute and take Rodriguez's spot in the Opening Day bullpen? The stars certainly appear aligned for that to happen.