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.
MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand reports that the Rays have acquired first baseman Lucas Duda from the Mets. The Mets will receive pitching prospect Drew Smith in return, per Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports.
Duda, 31, is batting .246/.347/.532 with 17 home runs and 37 RBI in 291 plate appearances for the Mets this season. He’ll provide a potent bat in the Rays’ lineup as they attempt to overcome their current 2.5-game deficit in the AL East.
Smith, 23, is the Rays’ No. 30 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. He ascended from High-A to Triple-A already this season, posting an aggregate 1.60 ERA with a 40/9 K/BB ratio over 45 innings across four stops with High-A Lakeland (Tigers), High-A Charlotte (Rays), Double-A Montgomery, and Triple-A Durham.
The Blue Jays completed a four-game series sweep against the Athletics on Thursday afternoon and won their second consecutive game in walk-off fashion. Last night, the Jays went into the bottom of the ninth inning trailing 2-0, but a two-run home run by Justin Smoak followed by a solo home run from Kendrys Morales led to a 3-2 walk-off victory.
Thursday’s game was already interesting enough as starter Marcus Stroman, catcher Russell Martin, and manager John Gibbons were all ejected by home plate umpire Will Little. Despite the adversity, the Jays battled the A’s, tying the game at four apiece when Morales blasted a solo home run — his second of the game — in the bottom of the ninth inning. In the 10th inning, A’s reliever Liam Hendriks walked the bases loaded with two outs to bring up Steve Pearce. Pearce worked the count full before pulling a fastball down the left field line for a walk-off grand slam, giving the Jays an 8-4 victory to complete the sweep.
Before Pearce, the last Jays hitter to hit a walk-off grand slam was Gregg Zaun on September 6, 2008 against the Rays, per SportsNet Stats.