Justin Morneau’s long-awaited return to the lineup after sitting out the past eight months with a concussion is the biggest news in Twins camp this week, but Minnesota also has another elite player coming back from an even longer absence in closer Joe Nathan.
Right around this time last year Nathan left his first spring training appearance with elbow pain and eventually underwent Tommy John surgery, missing the entire season. He’s returned to the mound with three scoreless appearances so far this spring, and more importantly his command has been good and his fastball has been clocked in the low-90s even as he builds up arm strength.
Here’s what Nathan told Kelly Thesier of MLB.com after his outing Monday:
The command has really been a pleasant surprise to this point, and I can’t ask for much more than what’s gone on out there now as far as life on the ball, movement on the ball, sharpness and stuff. Just keep moving forward and keep trying to improve and build arm strength, and I’ll be ready for April 1. I’m happy, very happy with how things feel right now.
Minnesota lost four key pitchers from last season’s bullpen to free agency, but Nathan returning as something resembling his old self would go a long way toward solidifying the relief corps. In his first six seasons as Twins closer Nathan racked up 246 saves with a 1.87 ERA, both of which topped Mariano Rivera for the best marks in baseball during that time.
Cody Bellinger helped the Dodgers to their first lead on Friday night, going deep for his 39th home run of the season and setting a new National League rookie home run record in the process. With two on and two out in the third inning, the Dodgers’ slugger launched a 2-1 pitch from the Giants’ Jeff Samardzija, skimming the right field fence to give the team a three-run cushion:
The three-run bomb was Bellinger’s sixth of the season. In what is undoubtedly a Rookie of the Year award-worthy campaign, he’s logged 21 solo shots, 11 two-run blasts and a single grand slam. His historic home run topped former NL rookie leaders Frank Robinson and Wally Berger, at 38 homers apiece.
The Dodgers need to stay on top of the Giants to clinch the NL West or, barring that, have the Marlins pull off a win over the Diamondbacks. They currently lead the Giants 4-1 in the bottom of the fifth inning. The Marlins, meanwhile, are staying just ahead of the D-backs with a 9-7 lead in the top of the sixth.
A report from Barry Jackson and Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald reveals that prospective Marlins’ owners Derek Jeter and Bruce Sherman have already initiated several key firings within the organization. While the sale of the team is still pending final approval next month, Jeter reportedly pushed club president David Samson to remove four special assistants this week: Andre Dawson, Tony Perez, Jack McKeon and Jeff Conine.
Hall of Fame infielder Dawson, outfielder Perez and Marlins’ legend Conine served as special assistants to the president. McKeon, who served as team manager from 2003-2005 (and briefly in 2011), was terminated from a 12-year post as special assistant to owner Jeffrey Loria.
The move didn’t come as a big surprise to Dawson and McKeon, Jackson and Spencer noted. It’s part and parcel of dealing with new ownership. But it was disappointing news nonetheless, especially as the long-tenured McKeon might lose an opportunity to return next September to manage one game and cement his status as the oldest manager in MLB history.
Should the Marlins’ sale go through in October as expected, this figures to be the beginning of several cuts. Per Jackson and Spencer:
Jeter also is expected to fire some people on the baseball side of the operation, though it’s believed president/baseball operations Michael Hill will be retained, at least indefinitely if not permanently.
Any replacements for those already released from the team have yet to be announced.