Spring training is full of false starts, and there are sure to be more in the coming weeks. Pitchers and catchers report, then ease back into gear after a long winter. Position players report, then spend the day going through physicals and filling out paperwork. Baseball is back, at least in theory, but the symbolism isn’t always matched by what’s happening on the field.
But that changed Tuesday morning, with a slight breeze pushing against a stiff heat, with Scherzer stepping onto the rubber and Soto settling into his stance about 60 feet away. The Nationals’ first full-squad workout brought the first rounds of live batting practice, and that brought this matchup, which drew cameras and reporters and, in the crowd of coaches and players, managing principal owner Mark Lerner behind the cage. A Nike film crew shot footage for a future commercial. Fans lined the fence. The energy lifted, if only for a handful of pitches, and real, meaningful competition didn’t feel so distant.
Or maybe it was just good theater for those itching for some. Soto, the Nationals’ 20-year-old phenom, took a round of hacks. Scherzer, who will start in Washington’s Grapefruit League opener against the Houston Astros on Saturday, also faced Trea Turner, Matt Adams and Brian Dozier across two simulated innings. Patrick Corbin, who signed a $140 million contract this winter, threw to those same hitters and a few more. Relievers Sean Doolittle and Trevor Rosenthal took their turns.
Here, on just one of the four fields bustling with activity, was a mix of holdovers and newcomers, all players who will decide whether the Nationals “win the offseason” or actually win. Washington stayed busy filling holes over the past few months, signing Corbin, bringing in proven catchers in Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki, adding Dozier to start at second base, veterans Anibal Sanchez and Jeremy Hellickson to round out the rotation, Adams for pop off the bench, and Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough to strengthen the bullpen. That team gathered for the first time. Now, officially, the march toward the regular season could begin.
“It’s still exciting,” Scherzer, 34, said of the first full-team workout. “The pitchers and catchers, we’ve had a good time. We’ve been working hard. Now let’s bring the whole team together. They’ve been showing their faces here and there. But when everybody’s in uniform and you go through the intros and here we go, we’ve got live [batting practice] and we’re facing each other, these are good sessions.”
Second-year manager Dave Martinez has vowed, over and over, that this spring training will be different from his first. He wants a higher focus on fundamentals, more time spent on defense, more accountability when a drill lags or a throw isn’t crisp. This a nod to how the Nationals played and finished last season, 82-80 by the end, often giving teams extra outs because of mistakes in the field. Martinez felt the team’s base running also was subpar. He said the same of its situational hitting.
With all of that in mind, there were already signs of a more detail-oriented approach. The Nationals’ first full-team fielding drills included relaying the ball from the outfield to home plate, and one botched exchange led to a redo. It was a small moment, one repetition in a morning full of them, that could have been overlooked. But it mattered to Martinez.
“Sometimes you get one shot to do it right, so we want to make sure that we hone in on doing it right,” the manager said Tuesday afternoon. “So it was kind of a message. When this thing happens in a game, we want to be prepared. It may not happen great all the time, but we’re going to work on it. I told these guys all the time, ‘I’m not asking for perfection; I’m asking for you guys to be present.’ ”
Scherzer used the live batting practice to gather perspective, a rare chance for a pitcher to see himself through a hitter’s eyes. He also got acclimated to a new catcher in Gomes — Corbin threw to Suzuki — and each mock inning was followed by long conversations between the new teammates. Scherzer began his offseason training Dec. 1 and, after imagining right- and left-handed hitters during recent bullpen sessions, was ready to face some real ones. Soto flared a belt-high fastball into right-center. Scherzer came back with a slider that buckled Soto’s knees and made the 20-year-old outfielder nod and smile in appreciation.
It went on like this, the Nationals testing one another, until noon became 1 p.m. and players slowly trickled into the facility. Word of Manny Machado’s 10-year, $300 million contract with the Padres reached the clubhouse soon after and, amid the chatter, one player couldn’t blame him for choosing to play 81 home games in San Diego. Bryce Harper remains a free agent, and now his market is expected to heat up. But none of that was a concern in West Palm Beach. At least not outwardly.
One workout was behind a group that feels good about 2019. And Opening Day was just over five weeks away.
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