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Trevor Rosenthal readies for the next step of his careening journey

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Trevor Rosenthal readies for the next step of his careening journey

WASHINGTON -- A car waiting, Trevor Rosenthal piled his locker contents into a duffle bag, pulled on gray sweatpants and braced for the next step of what has been a confidence-wrenching 2019.

He feels better -- at least internally -- following a quick sickness on the road last week in Colorado. His arm feels good. His body feels good. His pride? Hope? Expectations? Those are still ailing, and will be undergoing further work in West Palm Beach, Fla, when Rosenthal arrives at extended spring training Monday night. 

He’ll be back on the bullpen mounds he threw from in February, when this all seemed so logical and easy. Rosenthal’s high-end velocity returned as early as the summer of 2018 despite his 2017 Tommy John surgery. But, he waited longer before joining a team. After signing with the Nationals in the fall, Rosenthal went to Florida, a bundle of hair overpowering his cap, throwing hard and anticipating save opportunities when he wasn’t setting up the team’s closer, Sean Doolittle. 

Rosenthal’s path since is well-tread ground. He’s not right, incapable of locating his pitches or pinpointing problems. The influence of his ineffectiveness spread throughout the bullpen, then into the manager’s office. Other relievers were used often because Rosenthal’s roster spot was a dormant one. Diminishing returns, widespread problems, bloated ERAs defined Rosenthal’s bullpen mates while he watched. The manager, Davey Martinez, dispatched the other relievers until he was at a loss. “We got a problem in our bullpen and we got to fix it,” Martinez said over the weekend.

Theories about Rosenthal’s non-performance range from mechanics to the specter no pitcher wants looming: the yips. He argues pulling pitches into the left-handed batter’s box is a byproduct of trying to make the perfect pitch, forcing him to hold onto the ball too long. The Nationals thought he was flying open too early, leading to his league-leading total of wild pitches despite just three innings on the mound. Rosenthal -- upbeat throughout a torturous process -- contends his mind is right. Martinez would only go so far as to say they have to figure out what is wrong with Rosenthal. 

“I think it’s 100 percent physical,” Rosenthal said. “Obviously, the physical leads to some frustration but no, I don’t think I’m mentally stopping myself from doing anything. But the physical side will definitely help me to mentally be able to take a little bit of a deep breath for sure.”

Watching from afar is one of Rosenthal’s ex-teammates, St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright. He has watched each one of Rosenthal’s outings, undeterred by his personal in-season schedule. They spoke Monday.

The two played together from 2012-2017 in St. Louis, when Rosenthal ascended from 22-year-old, hard-throwing reliever to powerhouse closer. Rosenthal’s opening year in St. Louis was Wainwright’s first following the Tommy John surgery which interrupted his All-Star career. 

The start of Wainwright’s return was ugly. His first-half 4.56 ERA came while he grappled with the feel on his pitches. Back-to-back top-three finishes in National League Cy Young voting preceded Wainwright’s ulnar collateral tear. The first months of his return were spent as a below-average major league starter. He hunted for touch and belief start after start.

“I liken it to golf,” Wainwright told NBC Sports Washington. “When you first come back, you might succeed real well in spring training or whatever, and it’s kind of like when you haven’t played golf in a long time. You go out, your first nine, you play really well almost all the time. And you think, you know what? I’ve figured this game of golf out. I’m going to go out and now on this back nine, I’m going to start adding to that, and start shaping my shots a little different -- you end up shooting 46 on the back and you shot 37 on the front and you haven’t played in three months. Baseball’s the exact same way. 

“You might have a little early success, like he had in spring training. But learning that feel back takes three, four more rounds. It’s going to take a couple more months for him to get his feel completely back to where it needs to be. But, it’s going to be a great story for him because he’s got incredible stuff. He’s got the right mind to do this, and he’s going to have a great comeback story. I’m just going to go on the record and tell you, at the end of this story, it’s not going to be the beginning of this story. The end of this story is going to be a happy moment for him.”

Wainwright popped a Cheez Doodle in his mouth to punctuate his point. Why is he so sure Rosenthal will resurface? He’s seen it in the past, he says. Rosenthal would blow a save or have a poor outing, then come right back the next day. He also believes Rosenthal’s main affliction is apparent.

“The other day in his Colorado game, he had four or five, probably more than that, seven or eight, pitches that were just off the plate on the first base side that he didn’t get the call on any of them,” Wainwright said. “That couple inches right there is that last little inch or two of extension of his arm swing out front. Once he gets that thing all the way out front and pops it out front, instead of pull hooking it, he’s going to be in great shape.”

Wainwright added: “Physically OK and physically locked on your mechanics is completely different.”

Since being placed on the 10-day injured list because of a viral infection, Rosenthal has looked like a man without a country. He walks to the trainer’s room, out onto the field, hangs around the bullpen group some. Rosenthal relaxed on the right field fence during batting practice Saturday, both arms stretched out for support, watching his teammates prepare for another game without him.

His low usage rate is about to change. The Nationals expect Rosenthal to pitch every other day in West Palm Beach for as long as it takes. Martinez said there is no timeline. Rosenthal thinks his visit will be brief.

“The thing I need is to pitch,” Rosenthal said. “Sitting out there not pitching is going to make me rusty. Getting sick didn’t help and made me unavailable for a couple days and kind of prolonged that. But when I come back, I’m going to be 100 percent ready to go and I expect to be treated that way.”

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Will the 2020 Major League Baseball season be completed? Here's why it will

Will the 2020 Major League Baseball season be completed? Here's why it will

One of the major hang-ups during Major League Baseball's restart negotiations was how late into the fall the 2020 season should be scheduled. The concern remains that a rise in coronavirus cases could put the postseason and World Series into jeopardy. 

Now, with the regular season reportedly to open July 23 with the Nationals hosting the Yankees, we have an idea when we'll see real baseball again.

But, that doesn't answer the bigger question: will they make it through the entire season? 

"I think it's possible. I don't think it will be without some positive tests along the way," former Mets GM Steve Phillips told the Nationals Talk podcast.  "I just find it interesting, so we started in Japan, and they're getting along fine. In Korea, their policies were if one player tested positive the entire league would shut down for 18 games, and they haven't shut down yet."

Obviously there are different situations country by country, but Major League Baseball has an exceptionally long list of protocols they expect players to follow in order to keep this season running safely. The clear way to lower the risk is by following them. 

"If you want to play you're going to have to follow the rules," Phillips continued. That list is long too, and along with regular testing, here's a few:

  • Non-playing personnel must wear masks in the dugout. 
  • No spitting and no chewing tobacco. Chewing gum is allowed.
  • No bat/ball boys or girls. Their duties will be handled by team personnel.
  • Players have to retrieve their own cap and glove at the end of an inning if they're on base. A teammate can't bring it to them.
  • Hitters will have their own personal pine tar rag, bat weight, and other hitting equipment. Nothing is shared.
  • Baseballs used during batting practice must be disinfected and taken out of circulation for at least five days.
  • High fives, fist bumps, and hugs are prohibited. Fighting will be met with "severe discipline."
  • The only contact allowed on the field is tag plays and other incidental contact that occurs during normal play.
  • Showering at the ballpark is "discouraged." Even then only players, coaches, and clubhouse staff can shower at the park.

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There's only so much that can be done to keep this season as safe as possible, and there's no way to prevent a COVID-19 infection with 100 percent certainty. Yet MLB is going full steam ahead starting this month, and the hope from all is that it ends with a World Series champion crowned. 

Preferably the Washington Nationals again. 

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Max Scherzer is sort of OK with no longer hitting

Max Scherzer is sort of OK with no longer hitting

A multitude of markers spanned the 2019 Nationals season. From 19-31, to Kurt Suzuki’s walk-off home run against the New York Mets, to the postseason rallies.

Max Scherzer’s busted face is also among the easy things to remember about 2019. He was starting batting practice with bunts on June 18. This is standard for every hitter. First the bunts, then the swings. Pitchers tend to practice this more for obvious reasons.

Scherzer butchered a bunt -- later admitting he was trying to mess with third base coach Bob Henley, who was pitching -- and the ball kicked up into his face. His nose burst. Henley looked on aghast. Scherzer walked to the dugout, then the clubhouse with blood leaking from his face and confusion following him.

A day later, he pitched against Philadelphia with the broken nose, marching around the mound with brown, blue and black eyes. His 10th strikeout of the night came on a slider, ended the seventh inning and sent him into a celebratory spin.

He will not hit, or practice hitting, this year.

The designated hitter will be used in the National League for the first time. Scherzer will no longer bat, which means one of his favorite activities is going away. But, the rules of the sport will finally be unified during its championship series, something he has long advocated for.

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“Especially this year, given the nature of what we are looking at here, this is an interesting time to have the league under one set of rules to see what this looks like,” Scherzer told NBC Sports Washington. “Does it open up new opportunities we didn’t even think about?”

If Scherzer never hits again, he will finish with a .193 batting average. He hit one home run. It came in 2017 against Chris O'Grady of the Miami Marlins. Scherzer ran around the bases with a smile on his face, then was initially ignored in the dugout.

He was one of the few pitchers who practiced hitting on a regular basis. Scherzer also liked to attempt stolen bases if he reached and was not held on at first base. This gave Davey Martinez significant stress. Scherzer stole three bases and was never caught. It would be a fun footnote on his coming Hall of Fame plaque.

RELATED: SCHERZER TALKS UGLY NEGOTIATIONS BETWEEN MLB, PLAYER'S UNION

In general, Scherzer is intrigued by the rules tests and changes of 2020. He was adamant in spring training the playoff format should not be changed. He’s withholding his current opinion -- for now -- on placing a runner at second base to start extra innings.

“Kind of with this realignment, where we play the NL East and the AL East, it’s a very fascinating, to me, and very exciting divisional format of how teams are going to be playing across the country,” Scherzer said. “Is that good or bad? I don’t know. We’ve got to see. Is that worth changing the rules of the game, where we’re at going forward? I don’t know. That remains to be seen as well. For me, I’m just going to appreciate what 2020 is and what it’s going to bring and what we’ve got to do to go out there and compete and win.”

In his case, that no longer includes hitting.

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