Exhibition opener at Nats Park is both familiar and abnormal

They stretched and played catch in the outfield, just like they always do. Max Scherzer warmed up in the bullpen, just like he always does. After a moment of silence for late Rep. John Lewis, everyone lined up and listened to the national anthem, just like they always do.

And then, as pump-up music blared over the sound system and PA announcer Jerome Hruska introduced the Washington Nationals, the defending World Series champions took the field to face an opposing team at Nationals Park for the first time in 2020.

With no fans in the stands to welcome them back.

In this unprecedented return of Major League Baseball during the middle of a pandemic, the Nationals and Phillies crossed a new threshold tonight, facing off in the first official game of an abbreviated exhibition season.

In some ways, it was a return to normalcy for the two teams, who over the course of the Phillies’ 7-2 victory got their regulars three at-bats and ample time in the field, got their starting pitchers five innings of work and then got their relievers and bench players some action late.

But in most ways, there was nothing normal about this.

Martinez-Looks-From-Dugout-White-Sidebar.jpg“The atmosphere was different,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We’re so used to playing games with people in the stands, and that just ain’t gonna happen. I know the boys went through it. They know it’s going to be different. It’s just something we’ve got to get used to.”

Seeing another team in another uniform for the first time after two weeks of live batting practice and intrasquad games against each other, the Nationals had to start to get used to this new normal of social distancing, artificial crowd noise and extensive protocols for nearly every action they take on the field, in the dugout and in the clubhouse.

It was noticeable during warmups, a time when players might mingle with friends from the opposition, certainly those they haven’t seen in a long time. Tonight, though, those conversations were brief and held at least six feet apart. Rather than exchange hugs or high-fives, the Phillies’ Didi Gregorius gave a playful leg bump to the Nationals’ Starlin Castro and Adam Eaton in center field.

“It’s hard to adjust to that, but it’s nice to get a chance to see the other guys and the other teams,” Trea Turner said. “Whether you hate them or you love them, it’s fun to interact with them. And I think you’re going to see a lot more of that, a lot of weird high-fives and foot-taps and elbows.”

The umpires, wearing protective masks, gathered at the plate minutes before first pitch, but no representative from either dugout emerged to exchange lineup cards. That’s now being done electronically earlier in the evening.

The actual game, though, looked relatively normal. Scherzer took the mound to his usual walk-up song (accompanied by canned cheers). Andrew McCutchen dug into the batter’s box. And when Scherzer struck out the former National League MVP on three pitches, all seemed right with the world again.

That feeling didn’t last long. Scherzer endured through a ragged start to his lone exhibition outing before opening night, serving up a three-run homer to Gregorius in the top of the first and then former teammate Bryce Harper in the top of the second, which ended with the Phillies leading 7-0.

“Hey, I got beat around a little bit, but that’s good,” the three-time Cy Young Award winner said. “You know, you have to work out of the stretch, have to make pitches in those types of situations. That’s what happens in the regular season. It’s not always just going through lineups, and everything is easy.”

Scherzer did find his way after those first two innings and retired nine of the last 10 hitters he faced, striking out the side in the top of the fifth to complete an 87-pitch outing that will have to suffice as his final prep for the Yankees on Thursday night.

“Everybody knows what they have to do to get ready for the season,” said Scherzer, who faced teammates three times before tonight’s lone start against another opponent. “And for me, I know what I needed to accomplish out of the four starts to get ready for the season as best I could. And to be able to get the pitch count and press the pitch count above 80 today and get it above 85, that really bodes well to go out there and really compete late in the game, more so than I even thought I was going to be able to coming into this.”

The Nationals lineup, featuring all regulars except for Victor Robles (who was in the dugout tonight for the first time since spring) was not nearly as successful against Philadelphia ace Aaron Nola, who tossed five innings of one-hit ball and needed only 64 pitches despite actually recording four outs in a pair of innings that were completed with less work than he needed.

The artificial crowd didn’t have much reason to cheer, though it finally got to make some noise when the Nationals scored a run in the bottom of the sixth off reliever Héctor Neris. A recorded version of the “N-A-T-S! Nats! Nats! Nats! Woo!” chant that typically emanates from the 300 level behind the plate made its debut.

The seventh-inning stretch featured “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and A-ha’s “Take on Me,” albeit with no audience participation.

“It’s definitely different without the fans,” Turner said. “It’s going to be a little bit of an adjustment, but I’m a fan of the crowd noise. I think it kind of helps simulate a more natural game noise for us, at least. Maybe not the energy in the stadium with a bases-loaded, two-out situation. But just communicating and talking to one another, I think it helps.”

As the reserves and relievers completed the final innings of this game, the sun set behind the third base overhang and the first baseball game of 2020 at Nationals Park had been completed.

It was a comforting thought and yet also a reminder of the wholly uncomfortable situation we’re all in these days.

“This is it,” Martinez said. “I told them: Come opening day, this is what you’re gonna get. You gotta be prepared. You gotta find that inner soul and motivate yourself and your teammates behind you and try to do the best you can.”

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