The Nationals purposely brought Ryan Zimmerman along slowly this spring, not wanting the veteran first baseman to experience too much early wear and tear on a foot that was injured most of the 2015 season.
As opening day approaches, Zimmerman not only appears healthy. He's also red-hot at the plate.
The Nationals' cleanup hitter launched another home run today in the final exhibition game of the spring, a two-run shot to left off Twins right-hander Ricky Nolasco that gave his team a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the first.
It was Zimmerman's fourth homer of the spring, his third in his last five games. During this recent stretch, he's 7-for-14 with the three homers, driving the ball not only to left field but to center and right as well.
Zimmerman's importance to the Nationals lineup this season can't be overstated. After appearing in only 156 total games the last two years due to injuries, the Nats need their veteran cleanup man as a mainstay in their daily lineup, providing protection for reigning MVP Bryce Harper and taking advantage of plentiful RBI opportunities.
Daniel Murphy followed Zimmerman's first-inning home run with one of his own, sending a solo shot into the red seats beyond the fence in left-center. It was Murphy's first homer since signing with the Nationals over the winter.
Up 3-1 after one, the Nationals watched as Joe Ross gave it all back and then some. Ross bounced back from a game-opening homer by Brian Dozier, striking out three of four Twins batters at one point. But the young right-hander struggled in the top of the third, giving up four runs on five hits, including Joe Mauer's three-run homer to left-center.
With the ball surprisingly flying at Nationals Park despite chilly temperatures (the thermometer read 53 degrees at gametime), Michael A. Taylor continued his torrid spring in the top of the third. Taylor homered deep to left field, the ball landing about 10 rows deep, for his fifth home run of the spring. Hitting a single in his first at-bat as well, the young outfielder raised his spring batting average to a hefty .462.
Taylor's latest blast trimmed the Twins' lead to 5-4 after three innings.
UPDATE: Joe Ross' final spring tune-up didn't go as he likely hoped. The right-hander was roughed up pretty good by the Twins over his final couple innings, giving up three more runs on four hits in the fifth.
Ross' final pitching line was one of the stranger ones you'll ever see: 5 IP, 12 H, 8 ER, 0 BB, 8 K, 95 pitches, 65 strikes.
In a nutshell: He was utterly hittable. Except for all the at-bats when the Twins couldn't touch him.
Seriously, this was an odd outing for Ross. The Twins made some really good contact off him, which is obvious based on the numbers. But when he was on, he was really good. His slider, especially, fooled a bunch of Minnesota hitters, accounting for most of his strikeouts. And he kept the ball in the strike zone throughout, never issuing a walk.
It's now 8-5 Minnesota after six, the Nationals having gotten a solo homer from Danny Espinosa in the bottom of the fourth. That was their fourth homer of the game, the sixth total homer hit so far this afternoon at the park.
UPDATE II: With a furious late rally, the Nationals stormed back to tie this game to wrap up an eventful spring.
Scott Sizemore and Ben Revere delivered RBI singles in the seventh and eighth innings, respectively, to draw them closer to the Twins. (Revere went 2-for-2 off the bench today, leaving him with a healthy .429 batting average [18-for-42] for the spring.)
Chris Heisey then completed the rally with a leadoff homer in the bottom of the ninth, a nice way to justify making the opening day roster as a key right-handed bat off the bench.
Overall, the Nationals finished 19-4-4 in exhibition play, scoring an average of 6.8 runs per game this spring while allowing only 3.7 per game.
Next up: Opening day in Atlanta on Monday afternoon.