On Thomas’ leap, Cruz’s first homer and Rainey’s velocity

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - There’s one more exhibition game to be played here before the Nationals board their charter flight and head north for Thursday’s opener. But before we get to that, a few more observations and reactions to Monday’s 4-3 loss to the Cardinals in Jupiter. ...

* The play of the day - really, the play of the entire spring - came in the bottom of the first, when Paul Goldschmidt launched a drive to left-center off Joan Adon that everyone inside Roger Dean Stadium assumed was a solo homer.

Except left fielder Lane Thomas drifted back to the wall and leaped as high as he could in search of the ball, managing to at least tip it back towards the field. Where center fielder Dee Strange-Gordon was waiting in case the ball ricocheted off the wall. Instead, Strange-Gordon was in position to actually catch the deflected ball in the air, completing the most spectacular 7-8 flyout you’ll ever see.

“Incredible. Incredible,” Adon said via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I thought it was a home run.”

Everyone did, even for a second or two after the play was completed. It took a moment for teammates, umpires and fans to realize what actually happened.

The most impressive part: The Nationals have specifically been working with Thomas on getting better at tracking balls hit to the wall. He’s made a couple of notable mistakes in center field this spring, among the reasons manager Davey Martinez thinks he’s best-suited to play left field. Well, in this case, it worked to perfection.

“That’s what we taught him, yeah,” Martinez said with a laugh. “He was surprised. But it was good. You’ve got to find the ball. You’ve got to get back there. And he did a great job. Look, some of those balls, you’re not going to catch. But the fact he was able to keep it in, regardless if you catch it or not, it’s a double, not a homer. He did a great job getting back to the wall.”

* Nelson Cruz finally hit his first home run of the spring, a blast to left off Miles Mikolas to lead off the fourth inning. Cruz entered the day sporting a measly .100 batting average with zero RBIs, but he has looked more and more right at the plate in recent days.

“He’s getting ready in time,” Martinez said. “So now all of a sudden, those ground balls and strikeouts, he’s letting the ball travel a little bit more, and he’s starting to swing at better pitches and not chase. And now he’s starting to hit the ball like he should. He had some good swings yesterday, and he had some good swings today.”

* Tanner Rainey tossed a scoreless fifth inning in relief of Adon, striking out both Tyler O’Neill and Nolan Arenado. But the results only told part of the story.

Rainey also walked Corey Dickerson, and needed 21 pitches to face only four batters in the inning, only 11 of those for strikes.

The right-hander’s fastball, which has seen diminished velocity this spring, was up a little bit to 93-95 mph. The club doesn’t sound concerned about that, believing the extra adrenaline that will come from pitching late innings in a regular season game in front of a large crowd will provide the additional 2-3 mph he has typically shown in the past.

The greater concern is Rainey’s command. When he falls behind hitters, the results almost never turn out well. The Nationals would like for him to show better command of his slider, giving hitters reason to believe he can throw it over the plate for strikes with enough frequency that they’ll then swing at them even when they break down and out of the zone.

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