- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 27, 2016

VIERA, Fla. — Dusty Baker sat in the dugout and knocked on the handle of his red-barreled bat. The Washington Nationals’ manager does not consider himself to be superstitious, but he did it anyway.

With the regular season just eight days away, Baker doesn’t want to take any chances. Aside from pitcher Bronson Arroyo’s shoulder injury, the Nationals have made it through spring training with a fairly clean bill of health.

“We’re doing outstanding,” Baker said before the Nationals’ 7-2 split-squad win against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday at Space Coast Stadium. “We’ve got to knock on wood. I don’t believe in jinxes, but things are going pretty well.”

Staying healthy is paramount for every team in the spring, but especially so for the Nationals, who were ravaged by injuries in 2015. Former center fielder Denard Span, infielder Anthony Rendon and left fielder Jayson Werth — the projected top three hitters in the order — all got hurt before opening day and missed a combined 257 games. First baseman Ryan Zimmerman was placed on the disabled list in June with plantar fasciitis in his left foot and played in 95 games.

Zimmerman, 31, has been handled the most carefully this spring as the Nationals try to manage the injury. He did not play in a spring training game until March 13 and even then, he spent his first two games as the designated hitter. Since then, Zimmerman has played in a total of 11 games with seven starts at first base.

In Sunday’s win against the Braves, Zimmerman was at his best. He went 3-for-4 and drove in three runs before exiting the game in the top of the eighth inning. On the first play of the second inning, Zimmerman dove to his right to glove a grounder hit by catcher Tyler Flowers and flipped it to pitcher Gio Gonzalez for the out.

“Body feels great,” Zimmerman said. “I’m happy with my at-bats. The key down here for veteran guys is just to stay healthy, get some at-bats, not care too much about the results. You trust yourself by now that when the season starts, it is what it is. You can hit .600 down here or .200 down here and the key is to stay healthy, get into game shape and get ready to go. I feel good. Feel like I’m in a good spot and I’m excited about this year.”

For Zimmerman, that excitement follows two years filled mostly with frustration. There was a time when the Nationals’ slugger was incredibly durable and played 142 games or more in six of his first eight seasons as full-time starter. However, he combined to play only 156 games in 2014 and 2015. Last year, it was the plantar fasciitis. Before that, it was an ongoing right shoulder injury — which ultimately led to his switch from third to first base — and a torn hamstring.

“I was fairly healthy, playing a lot of games a year and I took a lot of pride in that,” Zimmerman said. “To not be able to play and get hurt is frustrating because we all want to play, we all want to compete and to not be able to do that sucks.”

He chalks his injuries up to equal parts bad luck and normal wear and tear. What’s perhaps most frustrating about the last two years is how well he has been playing when he’s actually on the field. Zimmerman and the Nationals were able to manage the plantar fasciitis injury enough for him to return on July 28. In his next 39 games, Zimmerman hit .311 with 11 home runs and 39 RBI. His season ended when he injured his left oblique on Sept. 7.

Now, Zimmerman has to cautiously approach his offseason workouts. He said he hardly runs anymore and has tweaked his exercises.

“Nothing cool to talk about,” Zimmerman quipped.

He’s eschewed heavy weights for core exercises and muscle stretching and joked that his warmup and rehab exercises take longer than the actual workout, except only that it’s true.

It’s just little things,” Zimmerman said. “You concentrate on things that five years ago you didn’t have to. When you’re young, you have to learn what to do to have success early without experience. Once you have experience and start to get older, you have to learn how your body adapts and what you need to do to stay on the field.”

When Zimmerman has been on the field this spring, he has felt comfortable, much like he did when he had the foot injury under control last season. Right now, maintaining that same level of comfort is all he can hope for as he tries to steer clear of any setbacks.

“I don’t know if it ever goes away, but I feel like we’re managing it very well,” Zimmerman said. “When I came back last year from it, it felt fine and we’re hoping just to keep it at the level and not have to worry about it this year.”

Moore traded to Braves

The Nationals traded backup first baseman and outfielder Tyler Moore to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for minor-league first baseman Nate Freiman.

Moore, 29, was waived and outrighted from the 40-man roster to Triple-A Syracuse earlier in the week. Moore has played in 277 games for Washington over the past four seasons and has hit .228 in his major-league career.

Freiman last appeared in the majors with the Oakland Athletics in in 2014, when the 29-year-old hit .256 in 301 plate appearances.

⦁ An Associated Press report was included in this story.

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