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Five Nationals spring training games to pay attention to

Five Nationals spring training games to pay attention to

On Saturday, the Washington Nationals will take the field for a game for the first time since celebrating its World Series victory on Oct. 30. 

From the clubhouse to the parade, there's been no shortage of celebration for the team since that magical night in Houston. Now, it's time for Nationals fans to celebrate the chance to watch their team back in action again. 

The reigning World Series champions will play 31 spring training games over the next month as the team tries to decide which 26 players will begin this season's title defense with the big league club. 

Here are five games Nationals fans should monitor in the spring training slate.

Feb. 22 @ Astros

A few months ago, this spring training game would have been notable for the mere fact that it was a World Series rematch against two teams that share a spring training facility. 

Oh, how things have changed. This game suddenly comes with even more storylines than anyone could have imagined. 

Houston will make its first spring training appearance since the sign-stealing scandal that rocked Major League Baseball. The Astros will get its first game action of being the villain, whether that's treatment from fans or treatment from their peers around the league.

All of the narratives dilutes the fact that the World Series champions are returning to the field, and that Max Scherzer is scheduled to be on the mound for the Nationals. 

This game starts at 6:05 p.m. and will be broadcasted on MASN. If there was ever a spring training game that was a "can't-miss game," this feels like one. 

Feb. 24 vs. Mets

This chance to play against a division foe in spring training offers a first look at the new-look New York Mets, who are the Nationals' first regular-season opponent of 2020.

The Mets indirectly got caught up in the Astros' sign-stealing scandal as its newly hired manager Carlos Beltran was one of the players involved in the operation. 

Beltran resigned before the team reported spring training, effectively ending his tenure before it really ever began. Luis Rojas took over that role for the Mets.

The Mets also made a few moves to shore up their pitching, adding Rick Porcello, Michael Wacha and Dellin Betances. 

March 3 vs. Orioles

Washington plays its interleague rival twice in spring training, with one of those matchups being a split-squad game. 

March 3 will feature both spring training squads at full strength, pitting the Nationals top prospect Carter Kieboom against the Orioles No. 1 pick Adley Rutschman. 

The Orioles aren't likely to be contenders like the Nationals are projected to be, but this spring game will serve as a preview for the annual "Battle of the Beltways."

March 12 vs. Yankees

The Nationals play the Yankees twice this spring, pitting two of the league's best against one another. 

Both teams will enter the 2020 season with sky-high expectations, and the two spring games will offer a chance to see what the rosters could end up as. 

The Yankees made a blockbuster move this offseason, signing Gerrit Cole to bolster their pitching staff to complement its loaded lineup. 

Washington and New York play once on Feb. 26 and again on March 12, with the second game being televised on MASN at 1:05 p.m.

March 22 vs. Cardinals

This matchup serves as one last spring training game before the team breaks camp and looks ahead to the regular season. 

Washington's last tune-up game against another team comes against last season's NL Central champion and the team that the Nationals swept in the NLCS. 

After this game, the 26 players that make the big league roster will head north for the regular season, which begins on the road on March 26 against the Mets. 

It may only be spring training, but competitive baseball is back. 

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Five baseball books to read while in quarantine

Five baseball books to read while in quarantine

The Nationals Talk podcast has been on a book run lately. Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post stopped by last week to discuss his book, “Buzz Saw”, about the 2019 Nationals season. Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal, and author of “Swing Kings”, joined us for Tuesday's episode. We’re a veritable baseball library.

So, in keeping with the book theme -- and the lack of baseball coupled with extra time -- here’s a list of five baseball books to read during quarantine. The list could include 20 other titles. But, many of these books are the reason this was a personal pursuit in the first place. Feel free to add some in the comments. And happy reading.

The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn

I don’t remember how old I was when I first read Kahn’s book, but I do remember it presented this fairy tale view of baseball in my mind.

Kahn covers his Brooklyn childhood, early reporting days at the New York Herald Tribune and follows the Dodgers to the end of the 1955 World Series. For a kid growing up in the sticks three hours north of New York City, everything about the situation delivered the grandeur you would associate with such a life. And the team was loaded with legendary names: Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Don Newcombe, Johnny Podres (who was from upstate New York).

The era has striking differences to our current baseball one. Kahn was working in a time of baseball-player-as-hero, where emotion, personal interaction and unfettered access colored the presentation of the sport and its players as much as analytics does now. Kahn also knew those players could be incomplete humans, like anyone else, and presented them as such.

This book is part nostalgia, part writing master class and part memoir. Do yourself the favor.

Ball Four by Jim Bouton

What Kahn held in eloquence, Bouton held in -- how to say this -- chutzpah.

The subtitle of the book goes like this: “The controversial bestseller that tears the cover off the biggest names in baseball.” Corny? Yes. Oversell? A bit, or so it seems now. But any time a book written about a specific sports league leads to the league’s commissioner, in this case Bowie Kuhn, speaking out against it, the book clearly sent a jolt.

Bouton’s diary of his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots (great throwback jerseys) and Houston Astros is also a look back at his time with the Yankees. He spent seven years (1962-1968) in the Bronx, pitched well (3.36 ERA), and paid attention. What distinctly set Bouton’s book apart was his willingness to tell the truth about what happened behind closed doors. From his personal clashes with management to Mickey Mantle’s drinking, Bouton spilled secrets which were -- and would remain -- significant breaches of any “circle of trust.”

For that, Bouton was reviled and revered. Players despised him for it. Critics adored the insight. The book became a hit. Time magazine once listed it among the 100 greatest non-fiction books of all-time.

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Three Nights in August by Buzz Bissinger

This hops us into a more modern look at baseball. Beyond that, it also gives a look into what baseball is built on: the three-game series.

When writers travel to cover the NFL, it’s an in-and-out experience. You arrive in the city on Saturday and sometimes leave as soon as Sunday night. For the NBA, you drop in one place, then go directly to another, easily losing track. Baseball provides a temporary chance to unpack.

And during the settling teams blast through three games. Bissinger chose the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry to write about. Tony La Russa was still running things in St. Louis at the time, and became the central figure of the book. He’s intriguing for the obvious reasons of brand recognition, but also because his bullpen strategy in the late 1980s became the standard and remains paramount today.

Bissinger became famous for “Friday Night Lights” and his background knowledge here about La Russa allows the access to deliver even more insight. Good writing, good figures, good story.

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

This is on the list because if you somehow have not read it, why not?

We won’t spend too much time on one of the most-famous baseball books in history, if not the most well-known, period.

Quickly: The low-budget A’s force math into the equation in order to find a way to win without significant cash resources. General manager Billy Beane is the architect of this approach (and apparently good-looking enough Brad Pitt plays him in the movie).

At its core, the book is about old-school versus new-school thinking and is (gasp) already 16 years old.

The Only Rule Is it Has To Work by Ben Lindbergh

Lindbergh took the Moneyball concept a step further and crossed it with baseball kookiness.

The Sonoma Stompers, part of the independent Pacific Association, allowed Lindbergh and Sam Miller to run baseball operations strictly on advanced analytics.

The book is a functional, real-world application of a consistent baseball argument: do everything by the numbers in order to maximize outcome. So, does it work?

No spoilers here beyond saying the experiment combined with those who populate independent baseball produces a compelling read.

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Gerardo Parra says playing baseball in Japan ‘feels weird’ without fans

Gerardo Parra says playing baseball in Japan ‘feels weird’ without fans

While baseball players in the U.S. have yet to receive any update on when the 2020 MLB season will begin, the Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball league has twice tried to reschedule its season opener only to delay it as a result of the continued impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The NPB had hoped to begin its season April 24, more than a month after its originally scheduled start date of March 20. However, the league announced on Friday that “thing are getting worse now” after three of its players, including star pitcher Shintaro Fujinami, tested positive for COVID-19. As of Monday afternoon, there were 3,654 confirmed cases in Japan—up from just over 2,600 last Thursday (per Johns Hopkins).

Unlike the MLB, Japan’s NPB elected to continue playing out its preseason back in February despite the spread of the virus. The league announced Feb. 26 that its 72 remaining preseason games would be played without fans in attendance. It was something that former Nationals outfielder Gerardo Parra, now with the Yomiuri Giants, didn’t enjoy as much as the real thing

“It feels weird,” Parra said on a recorded FaceTime call with MASN’s Alex Chappell and Mark Zuckerman. “It feels weird because the motivation for us [as] players, we want to see a lot of fans. I want to see fans enjoy the [game], it brings me a lot of energy.”

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Parra joined the Nationals midway through the 2019 campaign and is widely credited with helping the clubhouse loosen up before turning around its season. After starting out 19-31, the Nationals rallied to secure a Wild Card bid before riding a postseason full of comebacks on their way to winning D.C.’s first World Series title since 1924.

If anyone can make the best out of a weird situation, it’s Parra. But as long as the coronavirus outbreak continues to restrict everyday life, there aren’t going to be many other options for playing baseball.

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