As long as Max Scherzer has about 90 feet and flat ground to work with, the Washington Nationals starting pitcher can remain ready from just about anywhere.
So even as the uncertainty heading into the 2021 season rose as four players tested positive for the coronavirus and seven others were put into close-contact quarantine, Scherzer stayed his usual competitive self, preparing to pitch opening day — whenever that would be.
“I had to be ready to pitch any day,” Scherzer said. “You never know when we were actually going to get cleared to actually play.”
When the Nationals take the field Tuesday for another swing at opening day after their first four games were postponed, they’ll do so with just two team workouts over the last week. They also appear to be without five would-be starters.
But Scherzer is focusing on the positives, and despite adverse circumstances brought on through the pandemic, he sees no reason for excuses.
“Just suck it up and deal with it,” Scherzer said. “You’re constantly having to find your way to get through situations. You can’t cry about situations. Everybody’s dealt a hand and you just gotta play it.”
Washington, it seems, has been dealt an especially tough hand. The team had been set to open the season Thursday against the New York Mets. But the Nationals discovered Wednesday a player tested positive, stemming from a test taken Monday while still in Florida for spring training.
That set off a cascade of contact tracing efforts, especially after three more players returned positive tests. In all, 11 players and two staff members will be away from the ballpark. An exact return date for any of them is hard to pin down.
Pitchers were cleared Saturday night to return individually to Nationals Park to throw bullpen sessions. Scherzer was a step ahead, going to a park on his own to toss a light bullpen on Friday, keeping him in shape to appear Tuesday.
“I was pretty much able to keep my arm where it needs to be,” Scherzer said. “I feel good, I feel ready, just anxious to get pitching. This is going to be fun. Finally get to play the start of our season.”
And Sunday night, manager Dave Martinez held a mandatory workout for all eligible players. That included a full round of batting practice, outfield work and infield drills. The preparation continued Monday with another training session.
The two workouts Sunday and Monday were of paramount concern to general manager Mike Rizzo, who said Sunday he felt his team needed the chance to practice before any games could take place.
“It’s really big. Just get the blood flowing through you, your body and everything,” right fielder Juan Soto said. “Get your muscles started going again, and get ready for the day, to play at least nine innings and be ready for that.”
There were several key absences on the field, though. During infield drills, Trea Turner and Josh Harrison — who were in line to be the starting shortstop and second baseman — weren’t out there. Ryan Zimmerman took reps at first base alone, without Josh Bell with him.
The Nationals can’t comment on who may be on the coronavirus protocol list, and Martinez declined to say whether any players were at the stadium but not on the field during the workout session.
In place of Turner and Harrison stood prospects Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia at second, and Hernan Perez and Adrian Sanchez at shortstop. Martinez said Garcia would likely start at second base for the opener.
“We’re going to make it work,” Martinez said. “The last two days, I saw a lot of energy in these guys. Especially the young guys. … These guys are going to be ready to play. They’ll step up.”
Elsewhere, left fielder Kyle Schwarber wasn’t spotted in the outfield, and catchers Alex Avila and Yan Gomes weren’t on the field. The Nationals signed veteran catcher Jonathan Lucroy to a minor league contract, and Martinez said he could be catching Scherzer on Tuesday if he passes intake testing. Lucroy has already talked with Scherzer and is studying film of the Braves, just in case he can play.
All of that adds up to create a headache of a situation for Washington — replacing several key players with young replacements while opening the season late with little preparation time.
But to Zimmerman, the potential absences won’t be that big of a deal. Lineups change throughout the season, even if it’s not always this drastic to start off. Nor is the layoff a big deal to Zimmerman, who likened it to the All-Star Break.
“I think it’s just the mental side that we just need to forget about it and go out and play tomorrow,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t think any of us are going to forget how to play in four or five days.”