WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — It sounded like spring once the music turned off. A weed whacker hummed, turning a patch of grass into green carpet. Balls flew above the outfield and smacked the leather of waiting gloves. Even a few birds chirped.
That’s how a small group of reporters experienced the Nationals’ first full-squad workout Tuesday. Given the coronavirus pandemic, media was not allowed inside the facility until pitchers, catchers and position players were in action. The viewing area was a single path between two fields, and the sightlines reached those fields, the bullpen, a block of turf for conditioning, an unused pool and the doors leading in and out of the main clubhouse and cafeteria. So hearing was the most useful sense.
“How’d that look?” Max Scherzer shouted after a throw to bullpen catcher Octavio Martinez. Martinez nodded and tossed the ball back. Scherzer, 36, is dealing with a sprained left ankle and is inching into his usual February routine. His morning began with calisthenics in front of two top members of the athletic training staff. He then played catch with Martinez, stretching to about 80 feet, and soon moved to the bullpen mound.
Once there, Scherzer threw about 10 pitches at low effort. After the last one, he tilted his hat up and shrugged. He seemed fine with how his ankle responded. He is just one of 70 players in camp, but any minor injury is cause for concern. The Nationals will have 72 once relievers Javy Guerra and Jeremy Jeffress are finished with mandatory intake coronavirus screening. No Washington player has tested positive since arriving in Florida this month.
“We’ve got to follow all the protocols here. I know things are still bad,” said Juan Soto, the Nationals’ star right fielder. “But on the field, we feel like kids. We forget about everything. We forget about corona and everything. ... We just disconnect from the world.”
“Each day that goes by, you learn something new,” shortstop Trea Turner added. “Having that knowledge is important. Last year, there were so many unknowns. Obviously, there still are some. But we know more now, so I think everyone feels a little bit more comfortable.”
Soto and Turner were two of the Nationals’ few bright spots in 2020. The emergence of reliever Tanner Rainey was another. Aside from them, though, the front office had a number of weaknesses to address this offseason. Reliever Brad Hand, first baseman Josh Bell, left fielder Kyle Schwarber, starter Jon Lester and catcher Alex Avila are the new faces. Second baseman Starlin Castro is back after breaking his wrist in August. Starter Joe Ross and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman are back after opting out of last season.
Most of the roster — from Bell to Schwarber, from Patrick Corbin to Lester, from Daniel Hudson to Will Harris in the bullpen — is hoping 2020 was an aberration. The organization, which celebrated its first World Series championship in 2019, is hoping a 26-34 record didn’t foreshadow a slide. The expectations are what they have been for a decade now: The Nationals want to win.
“I want them to put 2020 on the back burner and forget about it,” Manager Dave Martinez said Tuesday. “I was proud of them going out there and competing every day. That I know for sure was tough. It was tough for players; it was tough for families. There was a lot going on. But once we get on the field this year, we want to forget about what’s going on on the outside and get ready to play baseball.”
By 11 a.m., Scherzer had finished and hung around the bullpen. He leaned against a golf cart and chatted with whoever was in earshot. He laughed with Avila, who has caught him more than any other catcher. Then Scherzer fished through his pocket, pulled out a mask and put it on before walking inside.
Little reminders like this are everywhere. The doors and walls are filled with posters telling people to wash their hands and stay six feet apart. Drills are a bit more individualized to avoid big groups. There are multiple locker rooms instead of one clubhouse. And just past the edge of the facility, in plain view from the workout fields, was evidence of what the country still faces: Dozens of cars were lined up for coronavirus tests.
The Nationals’ and Houston Astros’ shared facility has been a testing site for the city since March. On Tuesday, as the death toll in the United States climbed past 500,000, there was gridlock in the parking lot, which filtered into a one-lane road, which led to check-in. Every Nationals player, coach and staff member is tested every other day as part of MLB’s health and safety protocols. Citizens of West Palm Beach face long waits for that sort of care.
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