After a week of frustrating bombshells - Juan Soto testing positive for coronavirus, Stephen Strasburg getting scratched from his season debut due to a hand injury - and uninspired play, the Nationals were just starting to find their groove this week.
They won a thriller of a 10-inning game with the Blue Jays on Wednesday night, then came right back and won again Thursday afternoon to sweep the bizarre road series in their home ballpark.
Things were starting to feel normal. Or, at least as normal as things can feel in 2020.
And then the Nats left the ballpark Thursday night and realized they wouldn’t be playing their next game for another 120 hours.
With their scheduled weekend series in Miami postponed due to the outbreak of positive tests on the Marlins roster, and then a scheduled off-day Monday, the Nationals have nobody to play until the Mets come to town Tuesday for a quick two-game series. (And even those games are anything but guaranteed, pending the track of Hurricane Isaias up the East Coast.)
“A mini All-Star break,” as manager Davey Martinez has described it.
All-Star breaks are good, but only when they come after 3 1/2 months of grinding every day. Pitchers need to rest their arms. Position players need to rest their bodies and minds. Nobody needs an All-Star break one week into the season.
The Nationals have no choice but to accept this break, though, and try to figure out how best to get through it.
The plan: After a day off Friday, the team will be back at Nationals Park the next two days for workouts and simulated games. It’ll be an opportunity for some pitchers who need work to get work, and for some hitters who are trying to get their timing down an opportunity to do that. It’ll also be an opportunity for Martinez and his coaching staff to run through some defensive and baserunning fundamentals, a couple of problem areas early on this season.
Most importantly, this weekend should be an opportunity for Soto to actually play baseball with his teammates and get himself ready to join the lineup for the first time in 2020.
Soto, who tested positive for COVID-19 once on July 23 but has tested negative numerous times since (included the two back-to-back tests required by Major League Baseball), is expected to be at Nationals Park today, having spent 10 days in self-quarantine as required by the D.C. Department of Health.
For Soto, who already missed two and a half weeks of summer training after coming into contact with someone else who tested positive, these weekend workouts offer a perfect opportunity to get back into baseball shape ASAP without having to jump right into game action after being cooped up in his apartment since opening day.
The Nationals, whose 3.43 runs per game rank 27th in the majors so far this season, will welcome their big slugger back with open arms.
“We’re in a tough situation. We definitely miss him,” Martinez said earlier this week. “We can’t wait to get him back.”
The bats did start to come alive during Thursday’s 6-4 win, with a couple of key players starting to produce. Rookie third baseman Carter Kieboom has now reached base in six consecutive plate appearances. Veteran second baseman Starlin Castro went 4-for-5 against the Blue Jays and is now batting .360 (9-for-25) with two doubles and a triple.
If anyone on the roster wasn’t looking forward to a long weekend off, it was Castro.
“Of course,” he said. “After my third hit, that’s exactly the same thing I think about. I say: ‘I feel good, I’ve been feeling good, I’ve been hitting the ball hard all these games against the Yankees and the Blue Jays.’ ... And wow, the bad thing is tomorrow we’re not going to play, and the next day we’re not going to play.
“I mean, it’s kind of tough, but that’s one of the things I always do by myself. I just don’t try to put this in my mind, because that’s one of the things that I can’t control, or we can’t control as a team.”
In this season of unexpected twists, they better get used to the idea of having no control over anything.