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Nats weigh home field advantage against staying healthy as playoffs near

Nats weigh home field advantage against staying healthy as playoffs near

Though they’re still fighting for home field advantage in next week’s division series, the Nationals understand they’re in a strange part of their season.  

Sure, playoff seeding is plenty important. These last regular season games count, et cetera et cetera. But Washington already clinched the NL East title, and already knows its playoff opponent is going to be the Los Angeles Dodgers. So it’s not a surprise that players are willing to admit how difficult it can be to keep their foot on the gas pedal these days.

“Once you win the division, there’s that exhale, that sigh of relief,” said Jayson Werth after Friday night’s 7-4 loss to the Miami Marlins.”..You kind of let off the throttle a little bit.”

And when a team takes that approach, health becomes the top priority. It’s a mindset that was on full display Friday night when Werth was removed from the game in the seventh inning as a precaution due to back and side tightness.

 “We can't afford to lose anybody else,” manager Dusty Baker said. “So we decided that, it was wet, on the chilly side, and I decided I couldn't take a chance on him being injured too.”

Werth said that team trainers ruled out a strain or a pull, and that he’d be surprised if he wasn’t in the lineup on Saturday afternoon.  

Still, any injury the Nats suffer this time of the year feels magnified, especially given the last week: Bryce Harper jammed his left thumb, Wilson Ramos tore his ACL and Daniel Murphy was shut down until the playoffs with a glute strain. Not to mention that Stephen Strasburg will likely miss the club’s entire October run.

“The biggest thing is right now is to get everybody healthy for the postseason,” Stephen Drew said. “I think that's key. We got some guys out and hopefully we'll be ready for the playoffs.”

So while every team says it’d like to head into the postseason firing on all cylinders, the Nats’ case shows that it’s not always realistic. Bottling up momentum and carrying into the biggest games of the year is the ideal, of course. But sometimes heading into the tournament with all your horses in tact works too — seeding be damned.

“Obviously home field advantage is important to us, and we want that,” Werth said. “But at the same time, we also feel like we’ve done our job a little bit. So there’s a balance don’t want to do something where you can put yourself in jeopardy, where you can really get hurt.”

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Ryan Zimmerman on coronavirus pandemic: 'It's like I'm retired, but I can't leave the house'

Ryan Zimmerman on coronavirus pandemic: 'It's like I'm retired, but I can't leave the house'

Just a few weeks after the Nationals hoisted the Commissioner's Trophy last fall as World Series champions, Ryan Zimmerman had a decision to make.

The longtime Nationals infielder has played in every season since the club moved to Washington in 2005 and holds multiple franchise records. The two-time All-Star, who turned 35 this past September, had to decide to return to the Nationals for another season or to retire as a champion.

After a couple of months of contemplating the decision, Zimmerman decided to keep playing. The Nationals re-signed the infielder to a one-year deal in February, hoping to get a victory lap, if nothing else.

"That was one of the biggest reasons I wanted to come back," Zimmerman said in an interview with NBC Washington. "I still love playing and think I can be productive, but I wanted to see what it was like to have a season where you're the defending World Series champions, to see how much fun it would be. Going on the road and see our fans, people that are excited to see us that don't necessarily live in D.C."

The MLB season was supposed to begin last Thursday, and the Nationals home opener was set for April 1. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, baseball, like all other professional sports, is currently on pause.

"I always thought when I wasn't doing anything in the spring, that during the summer I'd be able to do anything I want," Zimmerman said. "It's like I'm retired, but I can't leave the house."

As for the sports fans that are missing watching their favorite teams every day, Zimmerman feels for them.

"Were just as bummed as they are," he said. "You don't realize how much you miss sports until they're gone."

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Zimmerman has been home with his wife, Heather, and two daughters, Mackenzie and Hayden. While the couple admitted they are not used to being home this much during this time of the year, they said they were "blessed" to be in the situation they are in.

The infielder has served as the primary cook of the household, making dinner for the family every night, while Heather said she has a good routine down with the two young girls.

"It's been an interesting time," Heather said. "We're just taking each day at a time, shift every day to make it work."

Throughout their time in Washington, Zimmerman and his family have been very active in the community. During the difficult times for many, they have helped hospitals by sending over lunches, donating money, and purchasing items for a local women's shelter through an Amazon wishlist. 

While the Zimmerman's wait for the next time they can head to Nationals Park and resume their normal lives, they agree there are way more important things to be thinking about right now.

"The most important part is everyone stays safe and thinks about each other," Zimmerman said. "Baseball will come back at some point. But right now, there are a lot more important things than baseball."

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Max Scherzer remains in West Palm Beach, continues to work toward the start of the season

Max Scherzer remains in West Palm Beach, continues to work toward the start of the season

Everyone else had stopped. The Nationals were still playing.

Commissioner Rob Manfred decided to shut down spring training, stall the start of the season and formulate a plan for Major League Baseball’s response to the growing coronavirus pandemic in mid-March.

The Nationals were still on the field when baseball slammed on its breaks. Once off of it, they, like all the other players, were mired in a space filled with confusion and wonder. What’s next? What does this mean professionally? What does this mean personally?

“We just didn’t know what was going to happen,” Max Scherzer told NBC Sports Washington. “We were trying to get as much education and trying to learn exactly how this was going to shake down, what that meant, not only for us, but across the world and kind of what the new normal was going to look like. And, what we were going to be able to do and not do at the team complex. It just seemed like every 24 hours, everything was changing and it basically was there for like a 10-day period, and I think everybody was trying to figure out how they wanted to handle the situation with their families.”

Scherzer continued his workouts at the facility until it was closed and converted to a coronavirus testing center late last week. Since, he’s been home in a rental house and maintaining on his own.

He snagged some weights from the clubs’ glass-enclosed gym and resistance bands from the minor-league side of things on his way out. Scherzer works out in the morning. He’s also still throwing. He’s on the mound twice a week, going through 40- to 50-pitch bullpen sessions with a partner.

“What we’re trying to really get to grasp on is how long is this going to last and basically when the startup of the season is going to happen again,” Scherzer said. “As of right now, everybody has kind of circled June 1 though we obviously know that’s not firm. But that kind of looks like the earliest potential kickoff of three weeks of spring training, then the season. In my head, that’s kind of where I am basing everything off of right now.”

Last time the public saw Scherzer, he was sore. Pain in his right lat built up from his throwing sessions. The reason was because he put more stress out there -- purposely -- in order to keep it off his middle back. That was the problem last season when he twice ended up on the injured list. Scherzer is not sore now.

“Literally right after the whole shutdown, that next week when I was playing catch and throwing bullpens, I was feeling really, really good,” Scherzer said. “It’s hard to even say it was an injury. For me, physically, I feel great right now. I’m ready to ramp back up. Really ready to get back after it. Doing everything I can to stay as strong as I can right now so when we get the green light to go, hopefully, I’m off and running.”

Scherzer didn’t watch old games or get a baseball fix on Opening Day. He didn’t want thoughts about being on the field in his head. No “We should be playing…” in any other circumstance. Instead, he just continued to prepare, perhaps the top quality which will put him into Cooperstown when his career ends.

When -- or if -- the season does resume, Scherzer wants to be ready to throw three innings right away. He foresees three weeks of spring training before the new Opening Day. That means four starts for a pitcher. He would be ready for seven innings by the end.

Until then, he’s trying to enjoy family time, stay focused on preparation, and not let his usually busy mind drift too far. Time to talk trash, time to be with his teammates, time to stalk the mound will come again someday.

“You can always look at every situation with a positive or negative kind of light,” Scherzer said. “We were ready to start the season. We were all ready. We were gung-ho ready to start the season. The thing is, life in this world now, we’ve all had to deal with drastic change to our lives and everybody’s trying to do the best they can to cope with it and try to make the best of the situation when we’re in such a dire crisis right now. For me, just trying to find everything I can do to stay ready for when we do get the call to get the season going.”

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