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Nationals hunt for ways to maintain Gerardo Parra’s mojo without him

Nationals hunt for ways to maintain Gerardo Parra’s mojo without him

As much as technology has been the enemy in baseball in recent weeks, the Nationals hope it becomes an aid to keep last year’s vibe cooking.

Aníbal Sánchez tested it out at Winterfest, the 2020 group’s first large assembling, in order to import Gerardo Parra’s beaming bubbliness. There he was on FaceTime, giggling, smiling and with a sore but colorful forearm.

He won’t be in West Palm Beach at the team’s spring training facility. He won’t be on the 25-man roster. He won’t be on the field at Nationals Park this year -- probably. Throwing out the first pitch is something he’s interested in. But logistics are not on his side.

Parra is off to Japan after an immediate offer from the Yomiuri Giants following the World Series. He circled back with Mike Rizzo first because he wanted to return. His conversation with Rizzo convinced him to take the offer in Japan -- more playing time, more money, more marketing -- though he still hopes to return to the major leagues before he is done with baseball.

“I love playing everyday,” Parra told NBC Sports Washington. “That’s more important for me.”

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So, a void exists among the team’s ministers of fun. Parra’s scooter is parked somewhere else, its horn finally silent and wheels stopped. His body is across the globe, which makes the Nationals wonder how his aura can persist in the clubhouse. If you can’t explain it, and can’t intentionally manufacture it, how do you bottle it? Such is the complication of chemistry.

“I talked to Aníbal: please don’t lose the emotion, don’t lose the good feelings we have right now in the clubhouse because that’s good for me,” Parra said. “I think that’s more important to me. We worked a lot to do that. Don’t lose that. That’s the only thing I want to say to my teammates because that’s good when you come into the clubhouse and feel everybody happy and feel like a family.

“I put alerts in my phone because when those guys win I want to wake up or be ready and happy in that moment. I want to be there, too. The FaceTime. I want to be there. I’ll be ready for that.”

Strapped to his left forearm no matter his location is a forever reminder of 2020. Parra’s tattoo commemorating the World Series win and his accompanying “Baby Shark” cultural pop took 11 hours to sink into his skin. The effort is replete with the World Series trophy and smiley face wearing his preferred tinted glasses. His former teammates sent the image around to each other. The idea was hatched once the Nationals made the playoffs: Parra declared then he would receive the tattoo if they won the World Series.

“A whole forearm tat,” Max Scherzer said. “That’s pretty aggressive.”

“That’s aggressive,” Trea Turner said.

“It looks really cool,” Sean Doolittle said.

The tattoo’s existence reminds of Parra’s all-in approach. He wasn’t cheery half the time, or only when things were going well. His ecstatic-to-be-here vibe was close to perpetual. A slump at the plate temporarily dented it. A conversation with Davey Martinez brought it back to life. Now, it’s gone.

“I think it’s important we brought so many of those [other] guys back because I think our biggest strength last year might have been the chemistry in the clubhouse,” Doolittle said. “Last year was so special because everything in the clubhouse came together so organically. It wasn’t like Parra chose “Baby Shark” because he thought the fans would latch on to it and it would become a thing. He was just doing his own thing because he wanted to change his luck.”

Doolittle’s reference of a nearly full roster repeat came up when others addressed the topic of Parra’s absence. Sánchez referenced it. Scherzer referenced it. On and on.

“The core of this team’s still back,” Scherzer said. “And we can all look each other in the eyes and know when it counts, we can all count on each other and we’re a bunch of winners. I think [the chemistry] is just going to breed itself. We’re going to face a tremendous amount of challenges this year coming into it, but it’s going to be what it takes in the clubhouse to respond to it. And that’s what we play the game for. It’s going to be a challenge and we’re up for it.”

Even Parra agrees. He will be watching from Japan while 14 hours in the future, and talking on Sánchez’s phone, and continuing to counter modern concepts in baseball. Math despised the Nationals for much of last season. Yet, they won the World Series and attribute much of the outcome to chemistry, an unpalatable concept to a computer.

“I don’t think the guys will lose that,” Parra said. “Because other guys on that team love winning. When you have a guy play baseball to win, the guy he can’t lose that. I promise you these guys to the playoffs again too because these guys have a great heart.”

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Astros wade through first boo-filled night of many to come

Astros wade through first boo-filled night of many to come

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The only agreed upon factor of Saturday night’s spring training opener was affinity for Dusty Baker. 

Baker, alone at home plate to receive a ceremonial first pitch, raised his hand to the crowd when announced. Both sides cheered. Those in red stood, some shouted his name. Others on the Houston side could unabashedly applaud Baker. He represented what’s next, not what was.

But the past chased the Astros from the second the ballpark opened. Any Houston highlights were followed by hefty boos. “FOR THE H” flashed on the right-center field video board during the evening on what was supposed to be an Astros “home” game. However, there was nothing warm and fuzzy about the location for the Astros, an experience sure to track them outside of Houston throughout the season.

The Astros were booed en masse since Baker did not play any of his regulars. Myles Straw, Jeremy Pena and Taylor Jones began the game against Max Scherzer. It’s difficult to let Nos. 3, 89 and 79, respectively, have it on the first night of spring training. But, those on the team in 2017 remained safely in the dugout, prompting an expansion of targets.

Before Scherzer began his night, the Astros’ mascot, Orbit, ran across the face of the Washington dugout with an oversized Houston flag. He, too, was booed -- with fervor. Anything representing the Astros was in play since their main facets were not on the field.

Two signs carried by Nationals fans were taken by a ballpark employee. Some Washington fans banged on their seats during the game to mimic the Astros’ prior method for stealing signs. Scherzer thought something colorful had a chance to leak into the setting.

“I figured something like that was going to happen,” Scherzer said. “I got a good taste of what it’s like [when] facing [Bryce Harper] last year when we had our whole crowd going. I thought our fans would boo. I didn’t realize it was going to be that loud when I face Harp. That was a playoff atmosphere. Everything gets turned up a notch when the fans get into it.”

Scherzer threw 22 pitches, 13 for strikes in two innings. He allowed a single and struck out two batters he’s unlikely to ever face again. Otherwise, he was nonplussed to face the Astros in a game rain forced to pause, then stop, after two innings and a head-scratching delay.

“We won the World Series,” Scherzer said. “It wasn’t like I have a vendetta to hold. So, for me, over here we’re just trying to move forward and get ready for our season.”

Baker thought the reception went as expected.

“There were a lot of Nationals fans here,” Baker said. “We had a lot of fans here, too. You could tell who was for us and who was against us. All in all, it wasn’t too bad. You kind of expect to get some. But they weren’t too bad, though.”

So, the night ultimately served as the expected start. Scherzer pitched well. The Astros were booed.

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Astros booed, fans' signs taken in spring training opener against Nationals

Astros booed, fans' signs taken in spring training opener against Nationals

As if this week hadn’t already been bad enough for the Houston Astros, it got a bit worse on Saturday afternoon when they faced the Washington Nationals in the spring training opener. 

The Astros took the field at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and were welcomed by the fans with an eruption of boos. The two teams share the facility, but it was Houston's home game. 

Since 2017 Washington and Houston have shared their spring training facility in West Palm Beach and made it a tradition to kick off their respective Grapefruit League schedules against each other. They will play six times this spring - though Saturday's opener was postponed by rain after a scoreless two innings. 

One courageous fan really got into the act, holding up a sign reading "Houston *'s" that was eventually confiscated by ballpark personnel, according to the Associated Press.

If this start is any indication of what they will face throughout this season, it's going to be a long 2020 for the Astros. 

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