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A Yankees-Nationals Opening Day would finally give Gerrit Cole another shot at the Nats

A Yankees-Nationals Opening Day would finally give Gerrit Cole another shot at the Nats

Legend has it, Gerrit Cole is still out in the home bullpen at Minute Maid Park, waiting for manager A.J. Hinch to pick up the dugout phone and summon him to keep the Houston Astros’ slim lead over the Nationals in Game 7 of the World Series intact.

OK, he may not be in Texas anymore, but Cole has waited eight months to get the ball against Washington. After multiple reports confirmed that the Nationals would be taking on Cole’s newest employer, the New York Yankees, to open the 2020 season, he’ll finally have his chance.

Cole made two starts against the Nationals in the World Series, taking the loss in Game 1 by allowing five runs before dominating across seven innings in Game 5. However, it was Hinch’s decision to leave Cole hanging in Game 7 that will forever live in playoff infamy.

Rather than turn to the runner-up for the AL Cy Young award, Hinch brought in veteran reliever Will Harris to protect a one-run lead in the seventh. That set the stage for Howie Kendrick to one-up himself for the best moment in Nationals history by lining a go-ahead home run off the foul pole in right field. Washington never gave that lead back up to seal its first World Series title in franchise history.

RELATED: NATIONALS FINALLY RECEIVE APPROVAL TO USE NATIONALS PARK -- WITHOUT FANS

After spring training was put on hold by the coronavirus, the Nationals got together on Zoom to re-watch Game 7 with the feed broadcasting on Facebook. Perhaps the most popular phrase from the players throughout the night? “Did they bring Cole in yet?”

“He warmed up in the fifth inning?” first baseman Zimmerman asked when the cameras showed Cole getting ready in the bullpen.

“He got a try out for the Yankees,” left fielder Juan Soto replied.

“He passed his tryout, I’ll tell you that much,” Zimmerman said.

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Even though he fell short of winning the World Series, it wasn’t that bad of a fall season for Cole. The right-hander inked a nine-year, $324 million with the Yankees in free agency to become the highest-paid pitcher in MLB history. While the Astros have dealt with a sign-stealing scandal that marred their 2017 championship title, Cole is set to join a Yankees team that won 103 games last season.

The Nationals and Yankees weren’t supposed to play each other in 2020, but the truncated season of 60 games forced teams to play only opponents either in their division or the corresponding geographic division from the opposite league. With Cole and the Nationals now pitted against each other, MLB’s scheduling staff couldn’t resist making the matchup a marquee event to start the year.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone won’t make the mistake Hinch did. Cole will be on the mound against the Nationals in D.C. for Opening Day—coronavirus permitting—with Washington looking to prove its 2019 title was no fluke.

Someone should go check the bullpen in Houston, just in case.

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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.

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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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Davey Martinez names Carter Kieboom the Nationals’ starting third baseman

Davey Martinez names Carter Kieboom the Nationals’ starting third baseman

Carter Kieboom has not joined the Nationals for their on-field workouts yet. But, he does have a job assignment.

Davey Martinez said Saturday that Kieboom will be the team’s full-time third baseman when the season starts. The position was previously a competition between the rookie and veteran Asdrúbal Cabrera in spring training.

“As of right now, yes, I anticipate in a 60-game season, he’s going to go out there and play every day,” Martinez said of Kieboom.

The decision answers one of the largest questions of the offseason for the defending World Series champions. Their managing principal owner, Mark Lerner, said they could not afford Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon. So, they paid Strasburg and not Rendon. He signed with Anaheim.

Josh Donaldson was a high-end free agent they could have paid to play third base. He signed a four-year, $92 million contract with Minnesota. Trade rumors were also attached to Chicago’s Kris Bryant and Seattle’s Kyle Seager.

RELATED: WHAT DOES A SHORTENED SEASON MEAN FOR KIEBOOM?

None of that happened. The Nationals instead entered spring training with a question about who would replace Rendon, an MVP finalist in 2019, someone the organization drafted, developed and played for seven years, and the central figure in their offense. They needed a replacement and settled on Kieboom.

The 22-year-old’s brief, 11-game stint in the major leagues did not go well last season. He compiled -1.0 bWAR in barely two weeks. He struggled defensively at shortstop and produced an OPS-plus of 24 at the plate. However, the sample size is minuscule.

Washington has a history of playing its top prospects consistently under Mike Rizzo. Bryce Harper and Juan Soto were those the organization deemed ready at a young age, so they brought them up and put them in the field for good. The same idea follows Kieboom into the short season.

Kieboom started nine games at third base for Triple-A Fresno late last season. He made four errors. He played in 14 of the 17 spring training games before baseball slammed to a stop this year. Kieboom made three errors in 10 starts at third base then. It’s an alarming rate. That’s a 49-error full season. Rendon made 53 errors in seven seasons playing third base (729 starts).

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“The biggest thing for him was obviously his defense,” Martinez said. “We feel that he’s going to hit here. One thing when he left, [Tim Bogar] and Chip [Hale] talked to him about his footwork and really honing in on his footwork and getting his feet turned to where he’s going to throw at all times. I know he’s been working out. He’s hit tons. I know he’s faced live pitching and [was] trying to keep in shape the best he can and trying to do baseball activities as much as he can.”

Kieboom is expected to join the group workouts in Nationals Park on Sunday. When the season starts, he will be standing at third base, a legacy spot within the organization first held by Ryan Zimmerman then Rendon. Even in a short year, Kieboom will be compared to the person he is replacing, though he would argue there is no comparison.

“I’m not here to fill [Anthony Rendon's] shoes,” Kieboom told NBC Sports Washington in February. “That guy, in every category possible -- baseball, clubhouse, off the field, family, he checks all the boxes. He does it. He’s a special player. That’s not my job, to fill his shoes. My job’s to be myself, do what I can. Control what I can control.

“There’s going to be expectations of course. There’s going to be comparisons to what I do versus what Tony does. But that just comes with the job. That comes with anything when somebody as great as he is leaves, and joins another team and somebody needs to come in and fill the spot. I wouldn’t even say I’m replacing him. I don’t -- he’s not replaceable. But I’m here to fill a spot, take care of business, play my game and go from there.”

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