Tonight’s workout at Nationals Park featured a parade of relief pitchers, a trial run of baseball’s new extra-inning rule and the return of a key member of the coaching staff.
Rather than put two separate teams on the field that switched sides every half-inning like they did Monday, the Nationals mixed and matched their defensive players and batters throughout the hour-long intrasquad game.
No starting pitchers participated because they need to build in a day between Max Scherzer (who starts the July 23 opener vs. the Yankees) and Stephen Strasburg (who starts the next game, July 25). So instead manager Davey Martinez took this opportunity to send six relievers to the mound for a half-inning apiece.
That included Daniel Hudson, who faced four batters during his appearance, and Will Harris, who at long last made his game debut for the Nats. The 35-year-old right-hander hadn’t been able to pitch in a Grapefruit League game this spring because of an abdominal strain, but after four months of rest he was more than ready to face some actual hitters after an especially long wait.
“I haven’t pitched in a game setting since the World Series,” he said.” So for me, that was a really long time. And it felt normal. Everything felt normal.”
Indeed, Harris had not thrown a pitch to an actual batter since he gave up Howie Kendrick’s historic home run and Asdrúbal Cabrera’s follow-up single in Game 7 of the World Series. Now here he was as a member of the Nationals himself, wearing a “District of Champions” T-shirt after retiring Trea Turner, Adam Eaton and Cabrera in order on July 14.
“I was excited just to be here in Washington,” he said.
Once Harris and Hudson each completed his half-inning of work, the Nationals tried something new. As Javy Guerra entered to pitch his half-inning, he looked to second base and saw Wilmer Difo wearing a batting helmet, serving as the designated runner for a supposed extra-inning situation the team was about to simulate.
With Major League Baseball instituting the quirky new rule for this abbreviated season, teams have to scramble to try it out and see what works offensively and defensively. The Nationals played three half-innings with an automatic runner on second tonight. They managed to score in two of those frames.
“We wanted to see what the defense looked like, wanted the pitchers to actually get out there and see what the runner on second base looks like, and also trying to see which (batters) can get the guy over,” said Martinez, who has publicly stated his dislike of the rule. “There are going to be scenarios where we’re trying to bunt the guy over. There will be scenarios where I just want guys to swing the bat and try to drive them in. We need to work on it. It’s going to happen this year, and I want to work on it.”
Martinez had a welcome face in the dugout with him tonight for the first time this summer: Hitting coach Kevin Long.
Long had not been cleared to participate in camp because of his exposure to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. He finally got the green light from doctors and authorities today and was back to work.
“I know he had a mask on, but he was smiling from ear to ear,” Martinez said. “He’s been dying to come back, and he’s back now. So that’s one guy we’ve got back. Hopefully, we’ll get the rest of the guys back soon.”
Long was the only member of the big league coaching staff that had missed any time in camp so far, but another popular non-player has not been here and won’t be around all season. Longtime batting practice pitcher Ali Modami, who in addition to his official duties also became a good-luck charm last season walking the lineup card out to the plate before games and participating in dugout dance parties following home runs, chose to opt out.
The Nationals are still waiting for six players who have been held out of workouts throughout camp to be cleared to participate for the first time: Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Kendrick, Luis Garcia, Fernando Abad and Joan Adon.
Given the fact all will have been in the District for two full weeks within the next couple of days, it’s possible most or all will be on the field very soon.
“Honestly, I don’t know that answer,” Martinez said. “Every morning I wake up and all I can do is ask our medical staff: Are they coming? And they give me a no. Hopefully, one of these days I wake up and ask if they’re coming, and they give me a yes. That’s all I can say about it. I do know we can’t wait to get all these guys back and be at full force. Hopefully, it will be soon.”