Zimmerman heats up, Strasburg finishes strong, Kelley returns

JUPITER, Fla. - Ryan Zimmerman is, by nature, as even-keeled as they get. He refuses to get too excited or too depressed about anything he does on a baseball field, certainly anything does on a baseball field in March.

The veteran first baseman was able to at least smile after his performance today in the Nationals’ 10-4 Grapefruit League victory over the Marlins, in which he went 3-for-3 with a homer, a double and a walk.

“It’s always better to get hits and do good things than get out,” he said.

That’s as excited as Zimmerman is going to get, so we’ll have to leave it to his manager to get excited for him.

“You gotta enjoy it when it’s enjoyable,” Dusty Baker said. “Because for a long time this spring, it wasn’t enjoyable not getting any hits.”

zimmerman-running-white-sidebar.jpgNo, even though he’d never admit it, Zimmerman couldn’t have been too pleased with his 0-for-17 slump to open the exhibition season. Especially on the heels of the worst regular season of his career, leading to questions about where exactly he stands entering his 12th year with the Nationals.

Whether his recent surge is any kind of omen for the weeks ahead remains to be seen, but this much is clear: Zimmerman has been tearing the cover off the ball the last four days. He now has seven hits in his last 10 at-bats (three of them for extra bases) in addition to two walks.

And most haven’t been cheap hits, either. His double in the first inning today was ripped to deep left-center. His homer was a towering shot to right-center.

Zimmerman always has been a streaky hitter, perhaps a product of a swing that has a lot of moving parts and requires precise timing. He has been most pleased during this recent hot stretch at his pitch selection.

“Timing obviously is big, but for me a lot this spring it’s been swinging at strikes,” he said. “I’ve been walking a good amount, seeing some pitches. That’s what I’m most happy about. The hits and stuff are great, but I don’t take too much stock in that. Swinging at strikes, working the count, getting in hitters’ counts is the most important thing right now for me.”

Whatever the reason behind Zimmerman’s surge, Baker is simply happy to be watching it, recognizing the 32-year-old’s importance to his club.

“He stayed off some tough pitches, hit a ball to right; that’s a great sign that he’s staying behind the ball and timing it,” the manager said. “Yeah, come on Zim, cause we’re counting on him.”

* Stephen Strasburg’s final line from today’s start - two runs, four hits in 4 1/3 innings - didn’t stand out much one way or the other, but there were some significant developments within that outing.

Most notably, Strasburg bounced back after a prolonged first inning, during which he threw 28 pitches and let four straight batters reach base with two outs. After that, he retired 11 of the next 12 batters faced on 51 pitches, getting a better feel for his pitches along the way.

“I threw some good curveballs today; that pitch was there,” Strasburg said. “Fastball got better as the game went on. Changeup stunk, but that’s OK. It was better than I thought it was going to be. I’ll just keep working on it.”

Strasburg’s pitch count was at 75 when he finished the fourth inning, and he thought that might be it for him. But Baker and pitching coach Mike Maddux wanted him to go through the motions of sitting on the bench through another half-inning and then retaking the mound for one more, so he returned for the fifth just to face one batter and end his day with a pitch count of 79.

“That’s why we sent Stras back out there,” Baker said. “Because we wanted him to sit down one more time and then go back out there and warm up. Cause this is simulating championship play.”

* Shawn Kelley made his first appearance in 10 days, pitching 1 2/3 scoreless innings. Nothing had been wrong with the veteran reliever; the Nationals simply needed to get a look at other pitchers in big league games, so they had Kelley throw in a few minor league games to make sure he got an appropriate amount of work.

Maddux checked with Kelley first if it would be OK, and the right-hander told him it was no problem.

“Hey, doesn’t matter to me,” Kelley said. “Batters are batters.”

Kelley, one of several relievers under consideration to open the season as the Nationals closer, expects to pitch mostly in major league games the rest of the spring, ramping up his intensity level along the way.

He pitched with some intensity today as well, though not for conventional reasons. Shortly before taking the mound in the bottom of the sixth, he learned his beloved Louisville Cardinals had lost to Michigan in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

“It was hard to focus,” Kelley said. “I thought if anything went fishy, I was just going to start hitting guys and get ejected.”

He was joking. We’re pretty sure.

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