WASHINGTON -- Much has changed for Sean Doolittle since he last pitched in a game that counted.
His fastball velocity is down. It’s a bit of a concern.
He jogs in from the bullpen now instead of taking the Bullpen Cart. The Nationals’ little-utilized and overly-annoying four-wheel transport is not part of the game situation in 2020. Instead, it is living a lonely life underneath the stadium, lined up with several other carts accustomed to speeding around the facility, but turned stagnant because of coronavirus protocols.
And, when Doolittle reaches the mound, his face covering is pulled down around his neck. He initially brought one in, then left it on the back of the mound. Tuesday, it was around his neck, scrunched down and gathered like a lowered sock.
Those are personal changes. When he looks around from the mound, there is a ubiquitous one: the seats are all blue.
Thursday’s opener in Major League Baseball will be historic for multiple reasons. Not the least of which will be the lack of fans -- prompting the Nationals to sell advertising space on tarps which will cover seats -- in the first game and, likely, every game until the end of the regular season in 2020.
Environments outside the park are like never before. The same can be said about inside, where fake crowd noise will replace those rising to the moment of a 3-2 count in the ninth. The question is how the vibe vacuum will affect those on the field.
“It’s really different,” Doolittle said Wednesday. “I thrive very much on the atmosphere and the energy of the stadium when I’m pitching. I really, throughout my career, I’ve learned to kind of channel that energy -- whether it’s the home fans cheering you or the other team’s fans trying to get in your head a little bit and create a distraction. You get that adrenaline rush and it’s all about how you use it.
“Right now, there was not an adrenaline rush [Tuesday] night when I was coming in the game. It’s something I struggle with in spring training every year because there isn’t that rush when you come out of the bullpen there, either. That’s going to be an adjustment that I’m going to have to make -- how do you get yourself to that point?”
Doolittle noted he typically throws around 91 mph in spring. That number climbs to 93, 94 or even 95 mph during the regular season. The juice is in the stands. The extra zip is transferred to the ball.
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“Without those fans there, I’m going to have to have, I don’t know, some extra Red Bulls or some coffee or something,” Doolittle said. “Maybe have somebody in the bullpen yell at me from far away with a facemask on or something, I don’t know. But that’s going to be a challenge. It’s a challenge for everybody, so you just have to figure out how to adapt to it.”
Before Doolittle will have a chance to enter the game Thursday night, Max Scherzer will be on the mound. Scherzer grunted his way through his intrasquad and exhibition game appearances. His adrenaline is not usually lacking, no matter the setting. Scherzer noted Wednesday that he has pitched multiple times with no fans around since he was a teenager playing baseball just outside of St. Louis. He equated Thursday to a bunch of big kids who just happen to be in a big stadium.
"You're trying to get used to it as best as possible,” Scherzer said. “I don't know exactly how that's going to play or not play, but I know I'm just mentally prepared to not let it affect me. These games matter, and when you get into big-time situations, I think the adrenaline just from competing against some of these best teams in a game, that provides you sometimes maybe the most adrenaline that you need. For me, I anticipate attacking [Thursday] just as I would attack any other game, and hopefully the fans that are watching at home on TV, that's something that they want to watch."
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