After the entire team had departed West Palm Beach and spread throughout North America, the Nationals coaching staff was left to figure out what to tell each player to do to stay sharp until everyone could gather together again.
The staff had to do this without having any idea when or where baseball would resume. And that meant nobody faced a challenge as difficult as Paul Menhart, the Nationals pitching coach tasked with creating and communicating the plan to several dozen pitchers.
At the time, there were rumblings of a June 1 return to action. So Menhart instructed his guys to prepare for that. That timeline obviously didn’t come to fruition, but that didn’t change the way the Nationals staff prepared.
“Guys were ramping up in anticipation of starting on June 1,” Menhart said. “So they’ve been ready for this moment since then, I would say.”
The end result is a pitching staff - and particularly a starting rotation - that appears to be ahead of schedule given the unusual circumstances. Max Scherzer and Aníbal Sánchez have already thrown four innings against live hitters, and Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin are scheduled to do the same in the next couple of evenings.
That leaves Menhart especially encouraged about his staff’s chances for success when the green light turns on next week and the Yankees are standing in the batter’s box at Nationals Park for games that count in the standings.
“I’ve been very impressed with all of them,” he said. “Because I know when they left spring training, they were anticipating a restart. And even though it kept getting pushed back, they were smart about it. They didn’t overdo it. They didn’t underdo it. I would say they pretty much did it perfectly.”
The throwing program Menhart devised included two throwing sessions off a mound each week. Those who were able to face live hitters were encouraged to do so in the final weeks before camp reopened.
The Nationals’ four veteran starters each will get a chance to face hitters three times before opening night, either in simulated games, intrasquad games or the three official exhibitions on the schedule over the next week. Each expects to be ready to throw up to six innings or 90 to 100 pitches in his first start of the regular season.
Austin Voth and Erick Fedde, the candidates for the final spot in the rotation, may not be ready to throw quite as much from the get-go, but the Nationals shouldn’t need a fifth starter until July 29 at Toronto (the team’s sixth game of the season).
In the meantime, everyone is trying to get used to the new protocols in place for this unprecedented season. For Menhart, who must wear a mask at all times on the field and in the dugout, that means several adjustments from the norm. Most significant to him: the inability to bring all the pitchers together in close proximity for meetings both formal and informal.
“We put a lot of stock in our togetherness here in D.C.,” Menhart said. “And prior to stretch, being able to have that little time together to talk shop or just mess around, for that matter. And I think that is something that has been difficult for them to get used to. They’ve been awesome. We have to separate them throwing on different sides of the field to keep the special distancing protocol in play. It’s a little frustrating at times. I know they want to be together. They want to have their little mini Circle of Trust chat, but unfortunately we’re not able to do that. Yet.”