- The Washington Times - Monday, September 29, 2014

The Washington Nationals spent Sunday evening basking in history, relishing the club’s first no-hitter and the first no-hitter in Washington since 1931.

But on Monday morning, it was back to business.

Four days are all that separate the Nationals from Game 1 of their National League division series against either the Pittsburgh Pirates or San Francisco Giants. In a 162-game season built on routine, it will be an uneasy lull. It’s both an opportunity to rest and a chance for complacency to creep into the clubhouse.

“That’s all we can ask as a staff: that they just keep the intensity up,” manager Matt Williams said Sunday. “It will be challenge over the next four days to do that. We have plans for that.”

The outlines of those plans are clear. The Nationals received a day off Monday but were scheduled to return to Nationals Park for full-team workouts Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon. An additional workout will follow Thursday.

As of Sunday morning the players had not been told exactly what the workouts will entail, but Ryan Zimmerman estimated they will last about two hours apiece and expects them to be “pretty intense.”

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“We have to try to be as game-speed as possible,” Williams said last week. “It’s going to be revved up and it’ll be fast and it’ll try to be as game-speed as we can possibly get it. Because you can’t turn that switch on and off.”

Williams said last week that he would likely schedule a heavy workout day and a light workout day. He also said the Nationals would have a simulated game, intrasquad scrimmage or “some kind of competition amongst the team” at some point during the three-day stretch.

The goal of that activity, Williams said, is to give pitchers the opportunity to face live hitters and position players the opportunity to field live grounders and fly balls. Most importantly of all, it will allow hitters to maintain their timing at the plate against real 95-mph fastballs and major-league curveballs.

“Baseball is not like riding a bike,” Williams said. “Rhythm and timing play a huge part.”

Since Opening Day more than six months ago, the Nationals have had consecutive days off only once: during the All-Star break in mid-July.

Like this week’s down period, the All-Star break was four days long. But most players spent that time resting with their families. This week, their focus will be on continuing to push forward and maintain momentum, especially in the batters’ box, where it matters most.

“A rhythm is a rhythm — for anything,” utility man Kevin Frandsen said. “When you’re writing, you have a rhythm. When you’re writing well, you have a rhythm. So you take time off and you try to write, you get a little bit of that writer’s block. Sometimes that happens in baseball.”

Facing live pitching can be most helpful to a hitter’s eyes. With regular playing time, hitters are able to routinely pick up a pitch out of the pitcher’s hand and adjust their swings accordingly. During long layoffs, the curveballs and sliders seem to move more quickly. The adjustment period slows.

Frandsen said simulated games help keep timing in check. In his eyes, the only difference between a simulated game and a live at-bat is the adrenaline rush.

“In a practice situation, you might not be all juiced up all the time,” Frandsen said. “But at the same time, your eyes are still seeing those pitches and seeing that action.”

As hitters try to maintain their timing, pitchers will not have to alter their preparation much. Doug Fister, who is expected to start Game 3 of the NLDS exactly 10 days after his last regular-season start, will likely throw a heavy bullpen session or simulated game Wednesday to simulate a start. The relievers, meanwhile, will prepare as usual.

“It’ll just be a typical little break,” left-hander Matt Thornton said. “Sometimes during the season, you don’t get in the games for a while, so I don’t see it being a problem. Sometimes it can be a good thing.”

Others around the team agreed. Though the layoff prevents the Nationals from carrying the momentum of Sunday’s no-hitter directly into a game the next day, it does give them time to recharge. Players will heal. Coaches will have ample time to put together a 25-man postseason roster — and scout their first-round opponent. Williams said they plan to watch the wild card game together as a staff Wednesday night.

“Definitely the four-day layoff is not ideal,” Zimmerman said. “But I’d rather wait four days and be guaranteed a five-game series instead of having to do that one-game thing.”

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