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No Astros in DC for July 4, but fans can still share Davey Martinez’s optimism

No Astros in DC for July 4, but fans can still share Davey Martinez’s optimism

It was supposed to be one of the most anticipated matchups of the year.

Before a pandemic forced MLB to postpone its season, the Nationals were scheduled to host the Houston Astros on July 3-5 in a rematch of last fall’s World Series. With a championship banner hanging at Nationals Park and boos following the Astros everywhere, fans would’ve been treated to an exciting weekend of baseball while celebrating the country’s independence.

“It would’ve been a good matchup,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said on a Zoom call with reporters Saturday. “Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen. It’s kind of sad, the whole thing. We were looking forward to a huge ring ceremony with fans. We didn’t get that. The raising of the banner, we didn’t get that. It’s going to happen eventually, but not having it kind of stinks.

“But you know what? Moving forward, we’re back, we are going to play. It’s nice to be back, nice to see the guys. Nice to watch the guys actually work out and throw together.”

Baseball is an integral part of many Americans’ annual July 4 celebrations. It’s a day many minor-league clubs across the country come as close to selling out as they can. MLB teams don special uniforms and hold military tributes before first pitch. Some fans just use it as an excuse to go outside and play a game of catch while enjoying the day off.

RELATED: MLB’S FIRST ROUND OF CORONAVIRUS TESTING SHOWS LOW POSITIVITY RATE

This year, everything is different. The 2020 MLB season has yet to begin, while the minor leagues were called off completely. A lack of baseball games on the schedule only presented yet another reminder of the extraordinary state of the country, and the world, amid a crisis that’s left millions infected and even more out of work.

Though as different as things might be, there was still baseball being played this weekend. Max Scherzer faced live hitters at Nationals Park. Mookie Betts was shagging flyballs in the Dodger Stadium outfield. Manny Machado was back in a batter’s box at Petco Park. It was July 4, and fans could open up social media or turn on the TV and get a taste of baseball again.

Progress is being made. After weeks of negotiations between MLB and the players union that went nowhere, teams reported to their respective ballparks this week for their first practices together since the hiatus began in March. The first round of testing showed a promising rate of only 1.2 percent positives out of the 3,185 players and staff members tested. Yes, this season will be different—only 60 games, no fans in attendance and extensive health protocols in place—but everything is different right now.

Of course, the feeling is bittersweet for many. The health risks are paramount, with even some of the players such as Ryan Zimmerman and David Price choosing to opt out of the 2020 season rather than put themselves in a position that could be dangerous for them or their families. There are plenty of players, media and fans that feel it’s unwise to put on a season at all during a pandemic.

But when the money involved reaches the billions, there will be every effort made to salvage as much as possible during a crisis. That is the reality. But here’s another one: Even though America isn't ready to return to normal, that doesn't mean the country can't try to move forward.

Thousands of people from ballpark workers to baseball operation departments rely on MLB for their source of income. Even more look to baseball itself for a necessary distraction from day-to-day life. The decision to put on a season isn’t just about teams trying to recoup some of their losses.

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It’s OK to be worried about the risks involved in putting on a season. In fact, fans should be worried. People’s lives will be at stake, and the more attention the risks get, the more pressure that will be put on the league to do everything it can to ensure its workers’ safety.

But at the same time, it’s also OK to get excited about the sport’s return. Baseball has a deeper meaning to those who have taken the time to invest themselves in the game. No one should be shamed for tapping back into that passion after spending months without the sport.

There are much bigger things to worry about right now than how Scherzer will look on Opening Day when he will reportedly face Gerrit Cole and the New York Yankees. Many people won’t even be able to afford the luxury of paying close attention to the sport while they focus on providing for their families or caring for infected love ones.

But on July 4, there was baseball again. Nothing about the game looks even remotely normal right now. Then again, nothing about the world in general looks normal right now. Why should baseball be any different?

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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.”

RELATED: STEPHEN STRASBURG GETS EJECTED FROM STANDS FOR ARGUING BALLS AND STRIKES VS. METS

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.

RELATED: WILL SOTO FOLLOW THE LEAD OF MOOKIE BETTS?

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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