Scherzer says adrenaline to fuel opening day start in empty stadium

The 2020 regular season finally gets underway for the defending world champions tonight when they host the New York Yankees at Nats Park.

It's game one of 60 on the schedule and will be played before a nationally televised audience, but without fans in the stadium.

Right-hander Max Scherzer is again on the hill to begin a season for the Nationals, but this time around under unique safety protocols and rules in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Scherzer-Set-White-WC-Sidebar.jpg"It's like every opening day," Scherzer said on a Zoom video call. "You're extremely excited to get out there and pitch. For me, I know I actually feel really good physically coming into this. Even though we only had four spring training starts, I feel like I put myself in a really good position to be absolutely ready for opening day, with all the things considering. I'm just looking forward to going out there and competing."

Scherzer got knocked around in his previous start against the Phillies in the Nats' first summer exhibition, allowing three-run shots to Didi Gregorius and Bryce Harper in a 7-2 loss last Saturday. He lasted five innings, allowing the seven runs and striking out six on six hits with two walks.

Even with that uneven start, Nationals manager Davey Martinez said his ace is "good to go".

"He bounced back after 87 pitches the other day really well," Martinez said. "He's excited to be out there again for another opening day for him. I've got all the confidence in the world in Max. He's a competitor, he's a bulldog. He works hard and diligently every day. Today he came in and did some work to get ready for tomorrow. I'm excited to watch him go out there and throw that first pitch of the year."

Scherzer is not thrilled there will not be any fans in attendance at Nats Park, but he is still pumped up to pitch in a regular season game on opening day. He understands it is a big deal that he and his teammates get to play baseball at all during this difficult time as the nation looks to protect itself from the spread of the coronavirus.

"Just a lot of excitement," Scherzer said. "Everybody's going to have that anxious little bug in them to get going, just because we've been through so much through the past few months. The fact we have baseball going up here in this country, to be able to get out there and show our game off and be one of the first sports back, to go out there and compete during this pandemic. Hopefully we can be a good influence and show everybody how to do this the right way."

Scherzer is a creature of habit and loves to go through a simulation with his pregame routine, which includes wearing his game-day uniform in the bullpen and listening to his walk-up music. And when it is on opening day, everything gets amplified.

"It's getting back in the swing of things. Every little thing you do that day is just enhanced. Your routines, what you do at home, what you do in the field, just getting ready for everything that goes into making a start. You try to simulate those things as best as possible leading up to this, but it's nothing like the real thing. That's what makes it the best."

Players have said they get an emotional surge when they take the field with 40,000 fans screaming and the scoreboard lighting up. But all that will be muted without the fans. Can Scherzer and his teammates get rolling early on without all that in-stadium hype?

"You're trying to get used to it as best as possible," Scherzer said. "I don't know exactly how that's going to play or not play, but I know I'm just mentally prepared to not let it affect me. These games matter, and when you get into big-time situations, I think the adrenaline just from competing against some of these best teams in a game, that provides you sometimes maybe the most adrenaline that you need. For me, I anticipate attacking tomorrow just as I would attack any other game, and hopefully the fans that are watching at home on TV, that's something that they want to watch."

Scherzer understands life is different in this pandemic, and that means baseball will be different too.

"It's just a challenge you have to accept and move on," Scherzer said. "There's so many different things that you're accustomed to how we've played the game over the past handful of years. That's not going to happen anymore. What's going to happen this year is, there's not going to be fans in the stands and it's going to be a completely different atmosphere. We all know that going into tomorrow. You've got to deal with it and just move on with it and know that can't alter anything you do on the mound."

The Nats also must hit the ground running because they are facing a team that came within one game of facing off against them in last year's Fall Classic. Plus, these Yankees have former Astros starter Gerrit Cole on the hill in the opener. Cole, who started Game 5 of the World Series against the Nats, signed a historic $324 million deal to leave Houston and come to the Bronx.

Scherzer loves to go back and review the last time he faced the opponent and what he did then to get guys out. This time that luxury is not provided because the Yankees have played the Nats only four times since 2015, a pair of two-game sets in 2018. Scherzer said he is not fazed by facing a brand-new opponent.

"This happens all the time," Scherzer said. "Even though you're playing what might be called a divisional opponent, there might be a new hitter within that lineup that you've never faced before. So how you go about that, you try to pitch to your strengths and try to understand what they can do at the plate. So that cat-and-mouse game happens no matter who you play. Because of the constant turnover in the game, you're always facing new guys anyway.

"The fact I haven't faced the Yankees the last five years, six years, whatever it's been, that's just the way it is. They haven't faced me. So, we're just playing a chess game right now."

Scherzer is evolving as well. He adapts and adjusts from year to year to try to keep ahead of the opponent. He acknowledged that catcher Kurt Suzuki has been working with him on some slight tweaks to his approach that could debut in this first game tonight. Now after four months, he gets a chance to see if those adjustments will play on the biggest stage.

"I'm just interested to see how, because with all that time off, I was just working on different little things I can do with the baseball and I'm just hoping I can implement what I've been thinking of," Scherzer said. "I've been talking to Zook and really trying to figure out if what I'm thinking is going to work and we're going to get into situations where we're going to throw some pitches the way we want to execute them and see if it works. And if it does, great. If not, back to the drawing board."

* Scherzer said he is excited that Dr. Anthony Fauci, a diehard Nats fan, will be throwing out the ceremonial first pitch tonight.

"Considering that we are restarting in the middle of a pandemic and (what Dr. Fauci's) leadership has meant to this country," Scherzer said. "For him being out there throwing the first pitch, I think that's a big signal to our country ... that means that we can do this. If he believes in it, if we follow the protocols, we can make the season work following the experts on this. I think it's a good representation of what the country should be focusing on."

* There was a special excitement at Wednesday's midday workout with Nationals first-rounders Cade Cavalli and Seth Romero getting a chance to throw innings against major league batters at Nats Park while Aníbal Sánchez also got in his simulated game prior to his first start. Cavalli wore jersey No. 97 and Romero No. 96, each throwing around 15 to 20 pitches per half-inning. The pair have been working with several other pitchers in Fredericksburg, Va., at the new high Single-A stadium for the FredNats and are eligible to be called to the big league club if necessary during the season.

"I wanted to see both of those guys," said Martinez. "They are definitely a bright spot of our future. They were able to pitch today so we brought them in to throw against our hitters. They looked great. I was really excited about watching those guys throw today. I saw some really good stuff from both of them. Both young, they showed some command.

"Cavalli throws really hard. He's got some good pitches and Romero threw the ball really well, threw the ball over the plate. Talked to some of our hitters about his changeup. His changeup is really good. He's got some good arm action on it. These guys are going to help us in the future."

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