Nats ready for nine (possibly shortened) innings and fans

It's been 154 days since the Nationals last played a baseball game. Exactly 22 weeks since they wrapped up the bizarre 2020 season with a 15-5 thumping of the Mets. As was the case for the entire 60-game campaign, there were zero fans in attendance.

So imagine the feeling everyone in uniform has as they wake up this morning, look at the calendar and realize they're not only going to play a ballgame today, but they're going to play it in front of fans.

Yep, the 2021 Grapefruit League opens for business this afternoon, and there's more than one reason to be excited about that.

Thumbnail image for Martinez-Serious-Hoodie-WS-G4-Sidebar.jpg"I'm excited that we're getting back out and playing another team," manager Davey Martinez said Saturday during a Zoom session with reporters. "Hopefully, we stay and go through a full spring training."

Martinez's words offer a stark, important reminder: They're still trying to play through a pandemic. And though the sport has done an impressive job so far preventing any COVID-19 breakouts in camps throughout Florida and Arizona, the threat always looms and the possibility of postponements or cancellations is never completely gone.

But for now the vibes are all positive. And why shouldn't they be as the Nats prepare to face the Cardinals just a short 15-minute drive up the road in Jupiter, Fla.?

A crowd of approximately 1,500 is expected at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium. It'll be the first time either team has played in front of fans since March 12, 2020, the day Major League Baseball shut down camps as the still-mysterious coronavirus was beginning to disrupt daily American life as we knew it.

When baseball returned in the summer, all fans were banned from ballparks. Twenty-seven clubs would never get the chance to play in front of a crowd in 2020. Only the Dodgers, Braves and Rays - during the National League Championship Series and World Series in Arlington, Texas - heard the diminished roar of the size-restricted crowd in late October.

So today is a watershed day for the sport, and it's actually going to be a little strange.

"I don't want to say we got used to hearing the automated crowd last year, but it's something that took some adjusting," Nationals utility man Josh Harrison said. "So it'll be fresh seeing faces, hearing actual voices in the stands. That's somewhere we can pull a little adrenaline from and have fun. That's what we play for outside of ourselves."

There are other things that will need some getting used to as well. Like the optional length of the game and option to end a half-inning before it's actually completed.

With health and safety still foremost on everyone's minds, MLB decided to give teams the ability to shorten any game through March 13 to five or seven innings (contingent on both clubs agreeing to the terms). After March 13, games may be shortened to seven innings.

The Nationals don't plan to utilize that rule at the moment, and today's opener will go the full nine innings. But they are prepared to take advantage of another revolutionary rule change that's always available through March 13: If a pitcher has thrown at least 20 pitches, a half-inning may end before the third out is recorded.

"If we've got a pitcher out there who's throwing 25 pitches, we'll stop the inning and get another guy for the next inning," said Martinez, who consulted with Cardinals manager Mike Shildt before making the official decision.

Hey, it may not entirely resemble baseball as we've always known it. But given what we've watched for the last year, it'll be close enough to satisfy everyone who has missed the sport.

Lineups: Nats vs. Cardinals in Jupiter
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