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The Nationals, social distancing and in masks, are finally back in Washington

The Washington Nationals returned to Nationals Park on Friday as summer camp workouts began. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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By Friday afternoon, when reporters were first allowed inside Nationals Park, the field was empty aside from a few groundskeepers and some scattered cones.

Players came in shifts to avoid crowded rooms and close contact in drills. Pitchers had a morning workout and left the stadium with boxed lunches. Max Scherzer threw two simulated innings off the mound, wearing a full white uniform. Pitching coach Paul Menhart stood behind him, wearing shorts, a T-shirt and a protective mask.

That is how summer camp began in Washington amid the novel coronavirus pandemic: slowly, if not surely, and with little like it normally is.

“These long days are meant to keep everybody away from each other right now,” said Manager Dave Martinez, adding that workouts stretched from 7:45 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Martinez sat alone in a news conference room and spoke with reporters — many of whom sat four floors above him in a spaced-out press box — via Zoom.

“We’re social distancing. We’re wearing masks. Our coaching staff is wearing masks on the field,” the manager continued. “We’re trying to do everything we can to keep these guys safe.”

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There is, as of now, a 60-game regular season to prepare for. The plan is for it to start at the end of July. The Nationals will be without first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, pitcher Joe Ross and catcher Welington Castillo, who chose not to play in 2020 to protect themselves and their families. Martinez announced Castillo’s decision Friday, right as position players were trickling into the facility. Others can opt out at any time, but they would forfeit their prorated pay and service time unless they are considered high risk.

The rest will train in Washington, where, across the past few days, players, coaches and staff were tested for the coronavirus. Those who received negative results were permitted at the park Friday. Those awaiting results are self-quarantining and expected to receive them by Saturday. This was the start of baseball how it has never looked before: no spitting, no high-fives, no assurance of a season aside from that the teams are going to try.

But there were still baseball matters at hand. Scherzer faced hitters and threw 65 pitches. Reliever Will Harris completed a bullpen session. Stephen Strasburg did, too. The Nationals added first-round draft pick Cade Cavalli to their 60-player pool, meaning they have two open spots with Zimmerman, Ross and Castillo absent. Martinez twice noted that every player who has received test results is healthy and able to participate in workouts.

And around 3 p.m., beneath a cloud-specked sky, the outfielders were in the outfield, and the hitters readied to hit, and the preferred greeting was touching elbows because a simple nod wouldn’t do.

The Nationals started group workouts on July 3. They will play a shortened, 60-game MLB season during the pandemic. (Video: Washington Nationals, Photo: Jonathan Newton/Washington Nationals)

“I was excited walking in,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “It was a strange environment. A lot of protocols in place. You can’t come in here with kind of a clear mind. You have to be thinking about what you’re trying to do. You have to keep yourself safe and look out for the other guys."

Before anyone enters the park, they have to have their temperature taken and answer a set of questions. Among them are whether the person is feeling any coronavirus symptoms, has recently been in contact with anyone with coronavirus symptoms or has recently been asked to self-quarantine for coronavirus concerns. On top of that, players, coaches and staff will be tested every other day, with results expected in approximately 24 hours from a lab in suburban Salt Lake City.

MLB’s return plan mirrors the Bundesliga’s. The key difference? It’s in the U.S., not Germany.

Frequent testing and monitoring are at the crux of MLB’s return plan. Another key element is trust that, while living at home, players, coaches and staff will exercise caution and avoid crowded areas, such as restaurants and bars. Because MLB is not operating in a bubble, it is asking teams to craft and police their own policies for conduct away from facilities.

Martinez had a strong message regarding this honor system, echoing comments made by Los Angeles Angels Manager Joe Maddon, who on Friday spoke about the importance of following protocols, noting that organizations were asking players to be “the best teammate ever.”

“It’s not only for the sake of them but for the sake of their families and their teammates, coaching staff, trainers, so we have to be smart about everything,” Martinez explained. “I know Joe Maddon said earlier today: If you can’t follow protocol, maybe you should opt out. And I agree with Joe. This is going to be tough for everybody.”

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“We really have to caretake each other and make sure we’re all doing the right thing,” Rizzo said. “Because if one person steps out of line and does the wrong thing, it could affect a lot of people and the season.”

So that is what the Nationals and 29 other clubs are up against. It was a present worry Friday. It will be a present worry moving forward. Catcher Kurt Suzuki was the first position player to emerge from the dugout. Then came outfielders Michael A. Taylor, Andrew Stevenson and Adam Eaton, catching up after months apart. Then came small waves, one after another, with numbers set to swell in the coming weeks.

Summer training will unfold in three phases. Phase 1 is for small group workouts. Phase 2 adds in larger group workouts and intrasquad games. Phase 3 is for exhibitions, though not every team will play them. Washington will start with its full player pool at Nationals Park, then send reserves to its alternate training site in Fredericksburg, Va.

In the meantime, players, coaches and staff will adjust to playing in a pandemic. Many players wore masks during drills. Coaches were required to. Eaton wrapped his fist in a white towel and extended it to teammates, showing a mix of restraint and innovation. Plenty of both will be needed for this to work.

Read more on baseball:

Will MLB’s health and safety plan hold up once baseball returns? It will be a tough task.

An oral history of Stephen Strasburg’s unforgettable MLB debut

Svrluga: Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman made choices. Not every player feels like he has one.