WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Long before any of their healthy teammates arrived for their night game against the New York Mets, Michael A. Taylor and Adam Eaton were in uniform on the practice fields, sliding between fields to take at-bats in three different intrasquad games populated by Nationals minor leaguers.
Taylor has missed a week of games since experiencing tightness on his right side. Eaton has not played in a major league game since last April, when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament. Neither have played in the field since their injuries, though both ran out of the box after contact Tuesday morning. Both succumbed to larger-than-usual strike zones. Eaton singled up the middle once. Taylor homered deep to left once, so deep that cars might have been in peril if it weren’t for the towering netting built precisely to protect them. Both will join the regular Grapefruit League lineup … well, “soon,” which is all Manager Dave Martinez will say for now.
“These guys can get all their baseball activities done. They’re doing really well,” Martinez said. “[Taylor] got a couple hits and felt good. His swing looks good. We’ll do that a couple times, cause it’s controlled. He can play the field when he wants. He can hit every other inning if he wants. It’s totally up to him.”
Martinez isn’t pushing Taylor or Eaton, though the former seems likely to be ready before the latter. Martinez also is letting Ryan Zimmerman dictate his workload early, sending him to the back fields for as many at-bats as he wants while limiting the time he spends standing on the field. All of this is meant to avoid pushing Zimmerman’s health too soon. Zimmerman also has limited his work in the infield, not taking daily groundballs with the rest of his teammates nor participating in base running practice with the rest.
Martinez said he has talked to Zimmerman and that he will get all the at-bats and in-game work he needs to be ready on March 29. But the weather on March 28 will be chilly, potentially unforgiving to muscles not honed for regular season rigors. The Nationals are off Wednesday. At most, Zimmerman has 11 Grapefruit League games and the exhibition game left to prepare.
Barring something unforeseen, Zimmerman will be in the Opening Day lineup. Barring a miracle, Daniel Murphy will not. Murphy is not yet able to run on the field, but did take groundballs with his teammates Tuesday. Bench coach Chip Hale was careful to only hit groundballs right at him, protecting him from any lateral movement. As his teammates turned their flashiest double plays, Murphy stood still behind second base and watched, out of the way.
For the third time this week, Murphy took batting practice on the field with his teammates. That constitutes a step, as he had been hitting in the cage until this week. But even during batting practice, the 32-year-old is limited. He is not sitting as low in the box as he normally would nor using his legs like he usually does, standing more upright and seemingly focusing on his swing path more than anything. He hit several line drives to the wall anyway.
When his group wrapped up, Murphy walked over to Director of Medical Services Harvey Sharman and trainer Paul Lessard, who watched and chatted as he showed them various movements with his legs. They seemed to be feeling out what he can and can’t do in the box, a process that does not foretell an imminent return to the lineup but does show the caution with which they analyze each movement. Once Murphy runs, he will likely need weeks to be ready for full-time duty. He might not be ready in April.
Wilmer Difo started at second base Tuesday. Howie Kendrick is scheduled to start there Thursday. They will likely play the bulk of the innings while Murphy is missing. Taylor and Eaton and Zimmerman should be ready in April, though time is running short for them to accumulate major league at-bats. They and their manager do not seem worried. Opening Day is 15 days away.
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