WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The state of the Washington Nationals on the second weekend in March can best be summed up by the sounds heard around the practice fields at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Saturday morning.
Hoots and hollers echoed from the half-sized field, where Manager Dave Martinez asked his regulars to wrap up base running practice by pretending they just hit a walk-off winner and celebrating accordingly. Cheers and heckling could be heard a few minutes later, when six teams of four battled for speed supremacy in an outfield relay throwing race. In a final, two-team showdown between the favored team of Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper, Matt Reynolds and Nilson Robledo and the upstart Team 3, the favorites overcame Rendon’s double-clutch to win.
And then, as General Manager Mike Rizzo and Director of Medical Services Harvey Sharman watched intently, the sound of Daniel Murphy’s bat hitting baseballs to the warning track punctuated the vocal stylings of Eminem, Ashanti and, briefly, Shaggy, which played from a big speaker nearby. For all the good vibes fostered from celebration, music and friendly competition, little could have been more encouraging than the site of Murphy hitting on the field for the first time since knee surgery in October.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen overhead pitching, so you want to kind of reinforce that I can take it and there’s not going to be any discomfort,” Murphy said. “And there wasn’t.”
Murphy is still a long way from ready and unlikely to be there by Opening Day. He is fielding balls only hit right at him, careful not to push with any lateral movement. He is only running on a treadmill and hasn’t done so on the field. The swings he did take, he tempered somewhat. Though he said he probably could have taken his patented “A swing” if necessary, Murphy admitted he didn’t want to push anything yet — much like many of his teammates took things slow during the first few weeks of spring training.
Sharman watched every one of the 32-year-old’s swings, many of which resulted in line drives, none of which looked totally Murphy-esque. While the fact that he hit on the field Saturday does not mean his return is imminent, it does mean he continues to progress and is not experiencing setbacks.
Michael A. Taylor joined him in taking batting practice on the field, a sign that the tightness he felt earlier this week does not seem to be a bigger problem. Taylor was a late scratch Monday after experiencing tightness in his right side, the same side in which he strained an oblique last year and lost a month to the trouble.
“It was completely different,” Taylor said Saturday, before explaining that he feels well enough to play and is no longer in pain. Martinez said he is being cautious with the 26-year-old center fielder, holding him out until he can be sure things are fine, much like he has done with Ryan Zimmerman. For the second time in four days, Zimmerman hit in a game on the back fields Saturday. He has appeared in only one Grapefruit League game so far, which Martinez describes largely as a manager’s decision. Martinez held him out of base running practice Saturday morning, too. He said the plan is to start getting Zimmerman more regular at-bats during the last two weeks of spring but to preserve him as much as possible in the meantime.
Such is the state of the Nationals these days. Martinez is pushing little beyond the necessary workload but fostering competition whenever possible. Music plays during practice. Morning meetings include more laughter than stern directives. Even base running drills included a chance to smile. Goodwill comes easily in mid-March but is tested more completely when the calendar shifts to April. But for the Nationals, goodwill will come more easily in April with Daniel Murphy in the lineup, and Saturday, he took another step in that direction.
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