The Washington Nationals have gotten small tastes of what Opening Day might be like. They have played two home exhibitions inside an empty stadium. They have heard the artificial crowd noise. There certainly won’t be a ring ceremony, fans to cheer for a banner raising or any of the usual celebrations afforded to World Series winners.

But how will it feel to host America’s first big-four sporting event during the novel coronavirus pandemic? They can’t be sure until it happens.

“There’s no way to know. You have to win the World Series and have the whole fan base with you to really know what we’re missing out on,” Nationals ace Max Scherzer said Wednesday. “For all of us, I think this was our first World Series, so it’s the only thing we know. We’re enjoying it together the best way we can. And we’re just happy that we are playing baseball.”

The Nationals were supposed to send a “2019” banner skyward April 2. They were supposed to receive their World Series rings in front of a packed house April 4. Instead, from mid-March to three weeks ago, they were kept apart. They burrowed inside. They followed tense labor negotiations, did whatever they could to stay active, then hoped for any sort of season this summer.

Now, with the coronavirus pandemic still raging, they will kick off a 60-game schedule against the New York Yankees on Thursday. First pitch is set for 7:08 p.m. Scherzer will face Gerrit Cole, the same pitching matchup from Game 1 of the World Series this past October.

It will, at long last, look a lot like normal baseball. But it also will be weird and complicated in the way that everything is weird and complicated. Players can’t spit or chew sunflower seeds. Coaches can’t touch their faces. Fans soon will get used to hearing new sounds, seeing dugouts full of masks, searching for the comforts they found in baseball before the whole world changed.

And the Nationals and Yankees will lead everyone into that process.

“So much of this experience, as far as resuming during pandemic and not having any fans — there are so many things we’re kind of learning and adapting to on the fly,” Nationals closer Sean Doolittle said. “Adjusting to playing games without fans is definitely one of the bigger elements of that.

“I still think that just the energy and the adrenaline levels are going to be higher with putting on the uniform and taking the field together for a meaningful game for the first time since Game 7 last year. It’ll be more of a challenge once we settle into the regular season."

The global coronavirus outbreak put a pause on professional sports. MLB announced in June 2020 its plan for the abbreviated season ahead. Here's what to expect. (The Washington Post)

On July 5, as the first weekend of summer training wound down, there was reasonable doubt about whether the season would start. Doolittle raised his phone on a Zoom call with reporters to show that he had not yet received a coronavirus test result. It had been more than 48 hours, and MLB’s operations manual promised results in “approximately 24 hours” once every-other-day testing began.

The Nationals canceled workouts a day later, citing the lag in test results. So did the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals. General Manager Mike Rizzo issued a sharp statement, saying MLB had to clean up the issues or training and the season would be “at risk.” But Doolittle and others have since been encouraged by stark improvements.

“It’s gotten a lot better,” Doolittle said Wednesday. “And to give credit where credit is due, the testing turnaround and those protocols have been running really, really well. Maybe one or two tests after that interview, it really started to kind of fall into place, and all of our results have come back within that 48-hour window.”

In some ways, the past three weeks were the easy part. This will all get much more complicated once teams begin to travel. The Nationals have scheduled trips to Miami, New York, Baltimore, Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Miami, in that order. And in a twist, their first “road” games could be at home because the Toronto Blue Jays are not allowed to play in Canada.

That’s baseball in 2020: risky, wacky, kind of rude. But that the Nationals can now focus on winning — against an actual opponent — is a welcomed shift. When Manager Dave Martinez was asked Wednesday about the hardest part of this spring and summer, his answer wound through a number of conundrums. There was the shutdown in mid-March. There was the smothering uncertainty that followed. There was hoping, more hoping, then dashed hope when each restart rumor flickered out.

Next, Martinez wondered how long summer training would last. After that, he had to figure out who was opting out. Once first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, pitcher Joe Ross and catcher Welington Castillo did, the plans kept evolving. Camp would be 20 days. Starter Stephen Strasburg called it a “mad dash.” Making it even madder was a 113-page document of health and safety protocols, rule changes and directions of how to properly go to the bathroom on a plane.

“It’s a long time coming,” Martinez said. “We prepared ourselves early in March, had to get shut down, came back and here we are ready again for Opening Day. A memorable Opening Day.”

A “2019” flag will fly behind center field Thursday night. A “2019” pennant will go above the video board to recognize the Nationals as reigning World Series champions. There will be some acknowledgment of the Black Lives Matter movement before the game, though it is not clear what that will entail. The words “Black Lives Matter” will be stenciled into the pitcher’s mound.

From there, Anthony S. Fauci will throw out the ceremonial first pitch to Doolittle. The ballpark will fill with a recorded version of the national anthem, sung by mainstay D.C. Washington. Any claps will have to come from two half-filled dugouts. Then Max Scherzer will toe the rubber, a hitter will stand in the box, and somehow, someway, two teams will play ball.

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