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Nats return to quiet Nationals Park to start a grand experiment

Nats return to quiet Nationals Park to start a grand experiment

WASHINGTON -- A heart with the letters “DC” was cut into the middle of center field Friday at Nationals Park. A member of the grounds crew dragged the hose onto the infield to water it down while an unrelenting 94-degree day baked the dirt. Orange agility cones sat in right field. The batting cage framed home plate. And, a light breeze stirred in the park’s upper reaches.

Patrick Corbin, Sean Doolittle, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman adorned the giant outfield posters beyond center field. Scherzer’s eyes remained on a booth above right field. The giant video board was blank and black.

It was in this setting baseball in Washington took its first steps toward trying to pull off a post-pandemic season in 2020. The Nationals worked out through the day, being dispatched in pods, making the park work the best they can. They had to use the clock to create space since there are not enough mounds or fields. The whole scene was strange.

This weekend was expected to come with fervor. Houston was supposed to be in town for a three-game series. Dusty Baker would be in the opposing dugout. Trash cans would brace for a weekend of abuse, as would the Astros. The line to get into the stadium would have shot up toward the Navy Yard Metro stop; bars across the street would have been packed; the weather would be thanked.

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Instead, seagulls were the main source of noise in between workouts Friday. Scherzer pitched a simulated game early in the day, going two “innings” and 65 pitches, before a group of position players trickled on the field around 2:45 p.m. The workouts are running from 7:45 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Players are being tested before they hit the field. Davey Martinez is fighting urges throughout.

“The first thing you want to do when you see the guys come in after not seeing them for a while, you want to give them a big hug, a fist bump, high-five,” Martinez said. “Had to stop myself today from almost spitting in my mask because I drank some water -- you're just used to it. But, yeah, those things are going to be things we have to abide by just because of the safety precautions. So, we're trying to figure out what we can do to emulate some kind of handshake or fist-bump or elbow tap or feet tap, whatever. We'll figure something out.”

Major League Baseball is trying to play 900 games in 30 cities in the middle of a pandemic. The odds of it working are low. Mitigation is a key concern. Being diligent is an ongoing topic. Mike Rizzo said players will not go out when on the road. Martinez spoke about extrapolations: it’s not about you, it’s about everybody else. Then, he wondered if the whole thing could be pulled off.

“You know, honestly, that's a good question,” Martinez said. “Honestly, I don't know, but we're going to do our best to keep everybody safe. We really are. These long days are meant to keep everybody away from each other right now with social distancing. Wearing a mask. Our coaching staff is wearing masks on the field. So, we're trying to do everything we can to keep these guys safe. Getting tested quite often. So, we're going to do everything we can to keep everybody that's involved safe.”

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Earlier in the day, Martinez’s longtime friend and mentor, Joe Maddon, suggested if players can’t follow the health protocols set forth by the league, they should opt-out of playing. Martinez agreed. If you are in the park, on the flights, in the field, the expectation is every rule will be followed precisely. Winning depends on it.

“This is going to be tough for everybody,” Martinez said. “You’ve got to be mentally strong. You’ve got to be prepared for things that we’re not used to doing on a baseball field. Definitely going to be a work in progress. But I think our boys understand what’s happening. The guys that are here want this to work, and we’re going to do everything we can to make it work.”

A batch of outfielders took ground balls and pop outs in right field around 3 p.m. Adam Eaton’s voice could be heard -- so there was at least a portion of normalcy there. Victor Robles, Andrew Stevenson and others slowly moved about the field before making their way to home plate to hit. The sound of bat meeting ball echoed throughout the park.

All the blue seats were empty. The gates were locked. No organ, no perpetual smell of food, no season-ticket holders assembling in the 300 level behind home plate where so many chants originate. The first day was almost over. The hardest days are still to come.

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Nationals pitcher Seth Romero put a long road behind him in his MLB debut

Nationals pitcher Seth Romero put a long road behind him in his MLB debut

Davey Martinez flagged down Seth Romero in the visitor’s clubhouse at Citi Field and called him into his office. The Nationals skipper cherishes moments like this one, but when the 6-foot-3, 240-pound pitching prospect walked through the door, Martinez’s attention briefly drifted elsewhere.

“First and foremost, the earrings gotta go,” he said, “and secondly, congratulations. You’re gonna pitch for us.”

Romero was already traveling with the Nationals as a member of their road taxi squad, though he had yet to appear in the major leagues. That finally changed Thursday, when Washington placed veteran reliever Sean Doolittle on the Injured List and selected Romero’s contract ahead of their series finale with the New York Mets. He made his debut in the fifth inning, allowing four runs over six outs of work with three hits, three walks and four strikeouts.

The big damage came on a grand slam off the bat of Mets catcher Tomás Nido. Romero was one out away from escaping the inning unscathed when he grooved an 0-2 changeup over the middle of the plate and Nido cranked it into the outfield seats for a grand slam. He then came back out for the sixth and recorded two outs around a pair of walks before being relieved by Wander Suero.

“I wasn’t too worried about it,” Romero said. “I felt good on the mound. I mean, things happen so I didn’t really think about it too much and just tried to focus about the next pitch.”

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Martinez spoke after the game about the Nationals’ decision to bring up Romero despite the fact that he hadn’t pitched in a professional game in nearly two years due to Tommy John surgery.

“Seth was here, we needed a lefty in the bullpen [and] as you can see when he throws strikes, he’s got swing and miss stuff,” Martinez said. “His stuff plays so I like it. He threw one bad changeup to Nido. Other than that, I thought he threw the ball very well. Nervous, he was really nervous. Heartbeat was going a thousand miles an hour but he’s gonna be OK.

“I thought with all the lefties coming up that that was a good spot for Romero. I thought he threw the ball good considering it’s his first outing in the big leagues. Got the early strikeout. Walks, I told him, ‘The walks is what—you’re up here you know. Walk one or two guys and these guys can all hit so just throw strikes. All I ask is you throw strikes.’ He was nervous but like I said, when he did throw strikes, he had a lot of swings and misses. It was nice, he’s got good stuff.”

It certainly wasn’t the debut Romero had dreamed about. The runs he gave up contributed to the Nationals’ eventual 8-2 loss and there were no fans in the stands to create the atmosphere that so many athletes strive to experience. But his debut marked the culmination of a difficult road that had kept him off the field and limited his ability to progress.

Washington selected Romero with the 25th overall pick in the 2017 first-year player draft. He had been one of the most electric pitchers in college baseball until the University of Houston dismissed him from the program for a series of incidents that reportedly included failing a drug test and fighting with a teammate. The questions about his character took a hit on his draft spot, which allowed him to land with the Nationals at the back end of the first round instead of being a top pick.

Romero made seven starts for the Nationals’ minor league system in 2017 and he evidently impressed the team enough to invite him to their major league spring training. However, the left-hander was sent home for violating team policy. He wouldn’t appear in a professional game until June of that season, when he made seven starts with a 3.91 ERA.

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But bad news struck again in September, this time in the form of an injury. Romero tore a ligament in his throwing elbow and required Tommy John surgery, putting an end to his 2018 campaign and forcing him to miss all of 2019 as well. By the time he started throwing again, Romero had to start from scratch; the first five balls he threw went straight into the ground. He eventually got over those "yips" and had been working his way back ever since.

“I’ve just been trusting the process, sticking to what they’ve told me, doing everything they’ve told me,” Romero said. “Just trying to stay healthy just in case they needed me.”

The Nationals hadn’t seen Romero pitch in a live game in 23 months, but they felt comfortable giving him a shot after what they’d seen from him at their alternate training site.

“We watched him progress, we watched him down in Fredericksburg and he was a guy that was throwing strikes and that’s important here,” Martinez said. “He was throwing a lot of strikes, he’s always in the strike zone, we feel like he’s got a lot of swing and miss stuff. And we need a left-handed pitcher. Right now he’s the only lefty we got with [Doolittle] going down. So we thought it’d be a perfect opportunity to get him up here and see what he can do.”

Even with the mixed results, both Martinez and Romero were happy to see him back on the mound and showing signs of potential. The former first-round pick still has a lot of work to do before he can live up to his draft status, but for now he reached a significant milestone and experienced for the first time what pitching in the major leagues can do a player’s nerves.

“Oh, I was 100 percent nervous for the first one but after the first few throws, I kind of settled in,” Romero said. “But right off the grip definitely nervous.”

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Juan Soto celebrates National Left-Handers Day in style

Juan Soto celebrates National Left-Handers Day in style

Around 10 percent of the world’s population had reason to celebrate on Thursday, and Nationals outfielder Juan Soto did so in a way he has been getting very used to lately.

Batting from his customary spot in the left-handed batter’s box, Soto connected for his third home run over the last two days against the Mets, this one traveling an approximate 435 feet. That makes five homers in eight games for Soto since he returned following a positive COVID-19 test just hours before the season opener.

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Back and fully healthy, the left-handed hitting Soto continues to impress the baseball world while following in the Nationals' tradition of powerful left-handed hitters. His 61 career home runs from the left side of the dish already ranks 4th in franchise history among left handed hitters:

  1. Bryce Harper: 184 HR
  2. Adam LaRoche: 82 HR
  3. Adam Dunn: 76 HR
  4. Juan Soto: 61 HR
  5. Daniel Murphy: 54 HR

(courtesy: Baseball Reference)

Soto is also hitting .414 so far in 2020, and is a career .290 hitter as well. That’s the 3rd highest mark in franchise history among left-handed hitters with at least 500 at-bats in a Nationals uniform:

  1. Daniel Murphy: .329
  2. Denard Span: .292
  3. Juan Soto: .290
  4. Nick Johnson: .286
  5. Adam Easton: .284

(courtesy: Baseball Reference)

Soto also has the 2nd highest slugging percentage among Nats lefties all-time (behind only Daniel Murphy). Not-so-memorable names like Nyjer Morgan, Brad Wilkerson and Brian Schneider also show up on these lists of lefties, but Soto is making quite a name for himself on an entirely different level.

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