After almost six weeks in Florida, the Nationals unpacked at the locker stalls in their home park on Monday, surrounded by the familiar and eager to move a day closer to games that count.
“I said this about seven days ago: I hit the wall,” manager Davey Martinez said before Monday’s exhibition game against the Yankees. “OK, spring training should be done, let’s go. I could see it in the players’ faces. They’d had enough. Granted, we’ve still got four more days until the season starts, but they’re ready to go. The same with myself and the coaches.”
Getting back to Nationals Park represents a sense of normalcy, said right-hander Max Scherzer, who will start Thursday’s season opener against the Mets and reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom.
“It’s comfortable,” Scherzer said. “That’s what you’re used to, that’s what you know.”
The Florida portion of spring training, however, wasn’t wasted time or energy. Martinez drilled fundamentals into his club, hoping to eradicate some of the mental mistakes that plagued them last season, when a club with designs on winning a World Series stumbled to an 82-80 record. A team filled with new personnel bonded.
The clubhouse has a different vibe, especially with the departure of slugger Bryce Harper via free agency to the Phillies, with whom he signed a 13-year, $330 million deal.
With the arrival of center fielder Victor Robles, there’s an infusion of youth to go with sophomore left fielder Juan Soto. Right-hander Aníbal Sánchez was brought in and righty Jeremy Hellickson was re-signed to stabilize the rotation. The back end of the bullpen was remade with the additions of righty relievers Kyle Barraclough and Trevor Rosenthal setting up for closer Sean Doolittle. The Nats remade their catching corps, trading for Yan Gomes and bringing Kurt Suzuki back.
Some of the personnel may have changed, but the motivation to succeed has not, said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the club’s longest-tenured player.
“We’re in a good position where every year we’re expected to make the playoffs,” Zimmerman said. “Ownership continually puts a good team on the field and we’re lucky to have that. Now it’s on us to go out there and compete.”
Mostly though, the Nationals are ready to get going, eager to trade the monotony of spring camp for the grind of the regular season. They want to erase the memories of what went wrong last year, when injuries and inconsistent play conspired against them.
“Being here means we can play some games pretty soon that count,” said shortstop Trea Turner. “It’s a little cold up here, but it’ll be worth it.”
Even with the roster turnover, the focus hasn’t changed.
“I think every year is different,” Turner said. “Whether you have the same people or not based off what you did the previous season is associated with you. Last year, we didn’t make the playoffs for the first time in a while and that’s kind of a chip on our shoulder. We’ve got a lot of new faces in here, but I think we’re ready to attack that head on and play some better baseball.”
* The Nationals’ 25-man roster doesn’t have to be set until noon Thursday, and Martinez sounds like he’ll take most of that time before making his final cuts. He’ll first have to confer with general manager Mike Rizzo, though.
“I have a general idea,” he said. “We’re going to sit down, Mike and I, tomorrow and talk about some different options. Regardless, I feel really good about the guys that we have the guys that we possibly have. We’ll hone in on that. You’ll know more, hopefully, by Wednesday.
Still to be determined are the final bench spot and the final bullpen spot. Infielders Adrián Sanchez and Jake Noll, who has impressed in camp but has only 66 games above Single-A, and outfielder Andrew Stevenson are battling for two bench spots. Right-handers Barraclough, Justin Miller, Wander Suero and Austen Williams are competing for the final three spots in the bullpen.
Martinez said the Nationals will open with an eight-man bullpen featuring Hellickson, the No. 5 starter, as the long man because of multiple off-days in the season’s first couple of weeks. That will allow the Nats to carry a five-man bench at the start of the season.
Right-hander Koda Glover (right forearm strain), outfielder Michael A. Taylor (sprained left knee and hip) and utility man Howie Kendrick (left hamstring strain) will open the season on the injured list.