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Nationals leave Winter Meetings with new fight against complacency underway

Nationals leave Winter Meetings with new fight against complacency underway

SAN DIEGO -- Quiet finally settled over the downtown Hyatt in San Diego on Thursday morning. The baseball industry packed, then left, leaving behind every imaginable facet of the pro machine. Commissioner Rob Manfred spoke Wednesday and a report trying to explain fluctuations with the baseball was delivered. All 30 managers held media sessions across the three days. Recent graduates hunted starts to front office futures. Clubhouse attendants held a meeting of their brethren. Everyone was perpetually stuck in the slow-moving elevators.

In essence, the Nationals’ defense of their World Series title started in southern California while these events transpired around them. They made an enormous move by signing Stephen Strasburg. They continued to manage the third base market, watching warily as they tried to figure out how not to be left short after Anthony Rendon signed a long-term contract with Anaheim and the frenzy for Josh Donaldson began. The Nationals also still need bullpen help.

In addition, a new battle against complacency exists. What’s happening for the Nationals is an offseason unlike any other because they won, and its fresh dynamics include convincing someone full he is still hungry. Ways to do that? Subtle changed mixed with standard procedures. They hope.

Next season always comes calling, loaded with the same 162-game grind, even for those teams who were still pitching on Halloween. Recent champions -- in particular the Nationals -- deployed their starting pitchers differently in the postseason en route to a title. Patrick Corbin made three postseason starts and came out of the bullpen five times. An injection coupled with a chiropractic rescue enabled Max Scherzer’s Game 7 start. Stephen Strasburg threw more pitches than anyone in baseball. 

Boston eased its pitchers into the 2019 season and appeared to pay for it. Their starters rarely threw in spring training games after winning a championship. Three of them threw seven innings or fewer in games during the Grapefruit season. Scherzer threw 26 and 26 ⅔ innings, respectively, the last two spring trainings. So, Mike Rizzo expects standard programming in West Palm Beach, not additional rest.

“I just think that we remind them what we do this stuff for and the elation that we had I think is still going to be with us and for us to feel that way again, we know what it takes to get there,” Rizzo said. “It’s a long hard road and it’s a lot of work. It starts Day 1 spring training and ends the last game. That’s going to be our outlook. We’re going to prepare for spring training like we have every other year. We’re not going to be complacent because we played an extra month of baseball. We’re not going to make any adjustments for preparation of our pitchers.”

Davey Martinez made adjustments. He swung his coaching staff around, moving Bob Henley to first base, Chip Hale to third and Tim Bogar to bench coach. Why? In part to reboot the holdover staff before they begin working with the players.

“Complacency,” Martinez said. “Everybody talks about those World Series blues, and that’s one thing we don’t want. We don’t want to be complacent. There’s going to be a target on our back, so we’ve got to come out and be ready to play from day one. We want these guys to understand that. We’re not just going to sit around and say: ‘Well, we’ve got plenty of time.’ No, the time is from day one. We’re going to get ready for the season, and hopefully do it again.”

Martinez will work with the same premise at spring training: go 1-0. He can still ride other sayings -- like “win your day” -- but the large white flag which said “Conquer” in red letters and traveled with the team is probably due for retirement. “Stay in the fight” fell with the end of the regular season. “Fight finished” isn’t phrasing which can carry to a new season.

“The message is going to be clear: Hey, we're not going to sneak up on anybody this year, that's for sure,” Martinez said. “So we've got to be ready to go from day one. With that being said, I want them to understand, hey, we're going to do business like we've done in the past, and we're just going to try to go 1-0 every day. Why change something that works?”

Why change? That’s the question, and the answer for the defending champions seems to be they don’t want to. Get ready. Stay ready. Try to do it again as if it never happened.

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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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