They’ve spent the last two weeks working first in small groups, then as a full (socially distanced) unit. They took grounders. They took batting practice. They threw off the bullpen mound. They simulated some game situations. And they played several intrasquad games.
And now, at long last, the Nationals will take the field and play a baseball game against an opposing team for the first time in 127 days.
It’s not a real game, merely an exhibition. But this Saturday evening gathering with the Phillies at Nationals Park nonetheless represents a milestone moment in Major League Baseball’s attempted return to play during a pandemic. And the folks involved in this game are relieved the time has finally come.
“I think everybody is excited about facing somebody else besides ourselves,” Nats pitching coach Paul Menhart said.
Indeed, there was only so much else the Nationals could get out of scrimmages and pseudo-game situations against each other. Eventually, they needed to play another team in an organized game. And given the condensed schedule they’re facing, this won’t be a casual stroll in the park.
MLB is allowing teams to play only three exhibition games before the regular season begins. That’s roughly 10 percent of the typical exhibition schedule at spring camps in Florida and Arizona. So it adds a distinct element of pressure and intensity to what normally would be a completely meaningless ballgame.
“We can’t just sit around and joke with them in the middle of the game,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “I think we’re going to have to take it a little more seriously. And we’ll probably get some feedback from the Phillies, of how travel went and how everything is going to go. I think it’s going to be a good indication Saturday.”
The Nationals are fortunate enough to be hosting their first exhibition, in their own ballpark, having spent the last two weeks becoming familiar with the new protocols designed to help keep everyone healthy. But they will be making their first road trip - albeit a short one - Monday evening when they fight traffic up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway for the first game of a home-and-home exhibition series with the Orioles.
“Going into the other stadiums is more of the concern than here,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We basically know what we want to do at home.”
This will be the first time Nationals players come into close contact with players from another team in another city, though, and so there are added risks and more unknowns than they’ve experienced the last two weeks.
But if they can put those concerns in the back of their minds, they’ll have their first opportunity to truly focus on baseball in a long time. And they’ll need to try to make the most of these limited chances to gauge the movement on their pitches, the timing of their swings, the positioning of their defense.
“It’s definitely going to be more difficult,” right fielder Adam Eaton said. “It’s definitely more outside the box, not the norm. I think all of our bodies are like: ‘What in the world is going on?’ ... But everybody else has got to do the same thing. I think we look at it that way: We’re under the fire, and so is everyone else.”
Martinez said he plans to play all of his available regulars - center fielder Victor Robles is the only major league regular who had yet to be cleared to participate in camp as of Friday - and though they won’t play all nine innings, they will see significant action as they try to get used to a real ballgame again.
Max Scherzer is scheduled to start and throw five innings in his final tune-up before Thursday’s season opener against the Yankees. Nationals hitters will be facing Phillies ace Aaron Nola.
It will feel comfortably normal for many. And it will simultaneously feel eerily unfamiliar.
And it’s all just the dress rehearsal for the main event five nights away.
“It’s going to be a nice test,” Menhart said. “I think there’s going to be a little more adrenaline involved in that whole process, which is a great progression to getting ready for the regular season to face the Yankees. This is a nice progression we’re going to be able to experience.”