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.
Lost in the nifty base running by Dustin Pedroia that won Sunday’s game against the Rays, the Red Sox set a new major league record by striking out 11 batters in a row, per Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe. Starter Eduardo Rodriguez struck out the final six Rays he faced and reliever Heath Hembree struck out five Rays in a row after that. Tom Seaver had the previous consecutive strikeout streak of 10, set on April 22, 1970 against the Padres.
The Red Sox also set a team record with 23 strikeouts in total: 13 by Rodriguez, five by Hembree, one by Matt Barnes, and four by Joe Kelly. Per Abraham, that’s the most strikeouts in a 10-inning game since at least 1913 and the most in a game of any length since 2004.
For Rodriguez, Sunday marked the first double-digit strikeout game of his career. He has pitched quite well since returning to the rotation at the start of the second half. Over 13 starts, the lefty has a 3.10 ERA with a 70/23 K/BB ratio in 72 2/3 innings.
Dodgers second baseman Charlie Culberson delivered a walk-off solo home run in the bottom of the 10th inning, clinching the NL West for the Dodgers on Sunday afternoon. What a way to celebrate Vin Scully’s final home game behind the microphone.
The Dodgers were trailing 2-1 in the seventh inning, but shortstop Corey Seager tripled in a run to tie the game. Rockies outfielder David Dahl untied the game in the top of the ninth with a two-out solo home run off of Kenley Jansen. But Seager once again rose to the occasion, blasting a game-tying solo shot in the bottom half of the ninth against Adam Ottavino. That would set the stage for Culberson in the next frame.
Culberson, a former Rockie, came into the afternoon with a .591 OPS and zero home runs in 53 plate appearances. He finished the afternoon 3-for-5 with the homer.
It’s the fourth consecutive season in which the Dodgers have won the NL West. The Cubs have clinched the best record, which means they’ll play the winner of the Wild Card game. The Dodgers will play the Nationals in the NLDS. The Nationals have a 1.5-game lead over the Dodgers for home-field advantage, so both teams are still playing for something of importance in the regular season’s final week.