In the final exhibition game for the Washington Nationals and New York Yankees on Monday afternoon at Nationals Park, both teams played basically their Opening Day starting lineups. Even after one offseason, it’s easy to forget how dense the talent pools are at the top of the sport. Perhaps fewer than 10 teams are World Series worthy. These are probably two of them.
After giving up a leadoff double in the first inning, new Nats starter Aníbal Sánchez, a former American League ERA champ, teased and tempted mighty Aaron Judge before fanning him with a full-count change-up. Next, Nats shortstop Trea Turner made a diving stop behind second base, spun and threw out Giancarlo Stanton, stealing a hit as first baseman Ryan Zimmerman finished the play with a flashy sweep-scoop in the dirt. Then Sánchez blew a fastball on the fists past Yankees cleanup hitter Luke Voit to strand a runner in scoring position.
In the bottom of the inning, Anthony Rendon hit a two-run homer halfway up the left field bleachers. Stanton pretended to care, perhaps to soothe his pitcher’s feelings, then just shrugged and admired. The Nats would go on to a 5-3 win, wrapping up a 17-12 spring.
At this time, every spring as the baseball season approaches, I find myself choking up a little. At times a tear will even appear in my eye, when I least expect it. I could claim these outward signs were evidence of my pure lifelong love of the sport; I once found a childhood notebook, carbon-dated to the 1950s, in which I kept the game-by-game batting performance of every Washington Senator — in spring training. But in truth, I’m just choked up on rotten spring pollen allergies.
My view of baseball, as an adult, hardly ever tends toward the sentimental, heartfelt school. The game is too intense, ruggedly competitive and winnowing for that. It weeds out relentlessly — by performance, injury or age. To those who play it, the game can seem like a terminator, stalking careers.
Mostly, I associate the season’s arrival with a hum of anticipation that runs through my days — not outright excitement, but a delicious kind of itch, fueled by curiosity, to learn what will happen in the next day or week. The 162-game schedule offers so many twists of team and personal fortune, within so short a span of time, that I always end up underestimating my future amazement.
These Yankees and Nats reminded me again that whatever we imagine now as the limits of baseball possibility will probably be exploded, starting almost immediately and then compounding — joy on joy, or the opposite — all year long.
For example, because Judge and Stanton are physical specimens (6-foot-7 and 6-6, respectively) and hit tape-measure home runs, they already seem like twin statues in pinstripe lore. But they aren’t. Just two years ago, Judge was a minor league unknown, and Stanton was still a Marlin.
All that changed in a blink. In 2017, Stanton hit 59 homers then was traded to the Yankees, and Judge hit 52 homers as a rookie. By last spring, they seemed set to dominate the sport — the new Ruth and Gehrig! Why even play the 2018 season? But Boston won 108 games and the AL East title, beat the Yankees in the Division Series and then won the World Series, too.
Even more than most, the much-changed Nats are a team almost certain to tie preseason expectations in knots. Manager Dave Martinez has called veteran right-hander Sánchez — the team’s No. 4 starter, replacing traded Tanner Roark — his most pleasant experience of the spring.
The top of the rotation — Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and free agent addition Patrick Corbin, with combined contracts as Nats at a stunning $525 million — is expected to be excellent, and nothing in their spring performance contradicts that. Scherzer fanned 12 and Strasburg nine in their last tuneups, unusually high totals for Grapefruit League starts. Corbin’s results were spotty, but he was using more fastballs, at the Nats’ request, and working on using his change-up more, too.
However, it has been Sánchez (2.77 ERA) and cheap pickup Jeremy Hellickson (4-0, 0.95 ERA) who have been consistent control artists and speed changers in their nine combined starts. In a rematch, Sánchez fanned Judge looking in the third inning. Scherzer has called Sánchez, a former teammate on a Detroit Tigers team that reached the World Series, one of the game’s smartest students of pitching.
My treat of this season so far was to watch Sánchez throw a heated side session in West Palm Beach, Fla., with Juan Soto at the plate watching pitches and reacting, usually with appreciation, as they came swerving past him. After the final sequence ended with a fastball up and away, then a final diving change-up down and in, Soto grinned and threw up his arms in approval. Not one of Sánchez’s three dozen pitches went straight — or topped 90 mph — but they all resembled one another, a devious similarity, until their last-instant swerves at the plate.
If the back end of the Nats’ rotation could be a nice surprise, so could the synergy of the top and bottom of their lineup, now that Martinez has decided to scrap his idea of using Trea Turner at leadoff and Adam Eaton at No. 2. That alignment might have given Turner more freedom to steal. However, in recent days, Martinez decided to flip-flop them with Eaton back at leadoff, where he has spent much of his career — and where Nats number crunchers have always envisioned him.
However, the main reason for the change of mind has been the stellar spring of rookie center fielder Victor Robles. The electric Robles — yes, I’d say “rookie of the year candidate” — has a .452 on-base percentage, a fine ratio of 10 walks to 10 strikeouts and seven steals in eight attempts. Ironically, Robles’s promotion involves being dropped to No. 9 in the lineup — often called “second leadoff.”
From that spot, he will have less pressure while also benefiting from a strong top of the lineup behind him, ensuring he’ll see a lot of fastballs. It also makes him the ignition in an around-the-corner Robles-Eaton-Turner sequence of speedsters and chaos creators who will bat before Soto and Rendon.
With bat-handler Eaton behind him, Robles will be free to run. Now, here’s the almost-too-cute inside-baseball aspect: With Robles at No. 9, Eaton, in effect, becomes a sort of No. 1-2 hitter asked to fill both roles depending on whether he leads off an inning or, later in the game, follows Robles. By the same logic, Turner, in that sequence, becomes a kind of combo No. 2-3 hitter. And Turner, the reasoning goes, has the 15- to 20-home-run power to get more RBI from that slot.
“That’s right,” Martinez said of Eaton as the 1-2 hitter and Turner as the 2-3 hitter.
Just days before Opening Day, it breaks several baseball bylaws to focus on negatives, especially if they have only shown themselves in vague outlines. Closer Sean Doolittle allowed five runs in one bad outing. Setup man Trevor Rosenthal has walked seven in 8⅔ innings. Kyle Barraclough has allowed lots of base traffic. But hold those bullpen fears — for now.
Instead, watch new second baseman Brian Dozier, a former Gold Glove winner, make a nifty barehand scoop and throw, as well as a connoisseur’s double play pivot — turning a high feed into a rocket throw to first in a blur. Watch Kurt Suzuki, part of a new catching tandem with Yan Gomes, bring home a man from third with a one-out sacrifice fly — the kind of situational hitting the Nats butchered last year.
And, of course, in the spirit of baseball’s ability to amaze us with the unexpected, enjoy a blistering double off the left field fence Monday by a 20-year-old who, just one year ago, had never been seen by most Nats fans: Soto. Is he the next fine Nats hitter, like a young Zimmerman? Or is he . . . pause . . . something else?
The countdown to Thursday’s Opening Day begins, and the anticipation builds. You don’t have to shed a tear, but it’s okay to grin. Here we go again.