Nationals

Nationals

WASHINGTON -- Another step toward what will pass for normalcy in 2020 took place Saturday night inside empty Nationals Park.

Two teams from separate cities were in the stadium for the first time since the 2019 World Series. Philadelphia rode down to play an exhibition game against their division rivals on a boiling 97-degree evening. Players generally kept to their sides, eschewing the usual nice-to-see-you chatter for social-distancing guidelines. Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorious exchanged leg taps with Nationals second baseman Starlin Castro before the game. That capped the interactions.

Public address announcer Jerome Hruska asked those in the stadium to stand for a moment of silence dedicated to Representative and civil rights activist John Lewis, who died Friday night at the age of 80. The national anthem played by the U.S. Army Brass Quintet from Game 4 of the 2019 World Series was re-aired. No lineup cards were exchanged. Max Scherzer ran to the mound. Andrew McCutchen came to the plate. The first pitch was a 92-mph cutter for a strike.

A giant fan circulated on the edge of the Nationals’ extended dugout setup. Players in the bullpen spread out and a tan Mike Rizzo sat alone five rows back near the home dugout.

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A full umpiring crew joined the teams on the field. The only void was the one which will last all season: empty blue seats.

Scherzer spent five innings on the mound. It did not go well when viewed by the caveat-loaded results which don’t count. He allowed seven runs in the first two innings, including three-run home runs to Didi Gregorius and Bryce Harper. Scherzer threw 88 pitches in his five innings. He struck out six and largely didn’t bother with sequencing hitters. Scherzer instead threw a large amount of fastballs to a team the Nationals play often this season.

 

“Hey, I got beat around a little bit, but that’s good,” Scherzer said. “You have to work out of the stretch, you have to make pitches in those types of situations. That’s what happens in the regular season. It’s not always going through lineups and everything’s easy. No. In the big leagues, you have a lot of innings like that where you have to go down and grind. The fact that I did give up runs, that’s the type of situation you’re going to be in during the season.”

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Though the results didn’t count, and the stadium was empty, Scherzer was trying to operate as normal as possible. He began to look into scouting reports. He went through his regular routine -- within all the safety protocols -- before jogging to the mound. In all, he didn’t feel a large disruption to his personal process less than a week before Opening Day.

He also has been hammering a steady message since the reboot of the season began. Scherzer is emphasizing cheer and embracement. The weird? The odd? The problematic? Wrap your arms around it.

“You just have to accept it,” Scherzer said. “Seems like every day, there’s a challenge. You just have to overcome it. If this is what it’s going to be, this is what it’s going to be. This is 2020 baseball. So, you’ve got to keep a smile on your face, just embrace it and have fun with it.”

Austin Voth followed Scherzer on the mound. He pitched four scoreless innings. The leaf blower, brooms and tampers were working on the field by 9 p.m., when the temperature finally drifted into a more reasonable territory, down to 82 degrees. A slight breeze stirred the American flag in left field, which sat at half-mast because of Lewis’ death.

This is it. As Scherzer said, baseball in 2020. No fans. Fake crowd noise. Social distancing. And, if they’re lucky, an eventual World Series champion.

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