Max Scherzer is going to take the mound tonight for the fifth Opening Day start in six years in Washington, D.C., but this one is going to be quite different for the Washington Nationals’ ace, who will pitch in an empty ballpark as the 2020 MLB season begins without fans in the stands.
The coronavirus, which brought an abrupt end to Spring Training in mid-March, is still an issue around the country, so Major League Baseball is enforcing strict protocols league-wide as they try to conduct a 60-game campaign amidst the ongoing pandemic. So they will be playing games in empty parks.
In spite of the changes, the testing, the masks, the social distancing, the DH in the National League, a runner on second to start the inning in extras, piped-in crowd noise, and other smaller adjustments everyone’s had to make, Scherzer said that this one will be just as exciting as the previous five season openers he’s taken the mound for during his time in the nation’s capital.
“It’s like every Opening Day,” Scherzer told reporters in a Zoom call on Wednesday.
“You’re extremely excited to get out there and pitch. For me, I know this one, I actually feel really good physically coming into this, even though we only had four Spring Training starts, I feel like I put myself in a position to be absolutely ready for Opening Day, with all the things considered. Just looking forward to going out there and competing.”
Scherzer, his teammates, and all the players around the league, had a long layoff and then a three-week ramp-up to the first games this week, but in spite of the rushed nature of Spring Training 2.0, the 35-year-old starter (who’ll turn 36 on July 27th) said he felt like he used the time well, and is ready to see if all the hard work pays off.
“I’m just interested to see how — because with all that time off,” Scherzer explained, “I was just working on different little things I can do with the baseball, and I’m just hoping I can implement what I’ve been thinking of.
“I’ve been talking to [catcher Kurt Suzuki] and really trying to figure out if what I’m thinking is going to work and we’re going to get into situations where we’re going to throw some pitches we want to execute them, and see if it works, and if it does, great, if not, back to the drawing board.”
Scherzer’s manager for the last three seasons, Davey Martinez, said yesterday he thought his Opening Day starter was prepared to answer the bell tonight in spite of the quick build-up.
“Based on conversations with him, he’s good to go, he’s ready to go,” Martinez said.
“He bounced back after 87 pitches the other day, really well. He’s excited to be out there again for another Opening Day for him.
“I got all the confidence in the world in Max. He’s a competitor. He’s a bulldog. He works hard and diligently every day.
“Today he came in and did some work to get ready for tomorrow, so I’m excited to watch him go out there and throw that first pitch of the year.”
Having done it before, Scherzer knows what to expect from an Opening Day start, even if it’s going to be a unique one in a lot of ways. His feelings going in this year?
“Just a lot of excitement,” the three-time Cy Young award winner said.
“Everybody is going to have that little anxious bug to get going, just because we’ve been through so much over the past few months, and the fact that we have baseball going up here, especially in this country, to be able to get out there and be able to show our game off and be one of the first sports back, to go out there and compete during this pandemic, and hopefully we can be a good influence and show everybody how to do this the right way.”
Scherzer also said you just have to accept and learn to deal with the fact that there won’t be fans in the stands and there will be subtle differences in terms of interacting with players on the bench and in the field.
“It’s just a challenge you have to accept and just move on,” Scherzer said.
“So many different things that you’re accustomed to from how we’ve played the game over the past handful of years, that’s not going to happen anymore.
“For what’s going to happen this year ... there’s not going to be fans in the stands and it’s going to be a completely different atmosphere.
“We all know that going into tomorrow. So you’ve got to deal with it and just move on from it, and know that that can’t alter anything you do on the mound.”
The atmosphere in the ballpark might be different, he said, but the game, essentially, is the same.
“The way I see it,” Scherzer said, “it’s still 60 feet 6 inches, and I’ve still got to throw the ball over that plate. So, whether there’s fans or not, there’s been plenty of times in my life where I’ve pitched and there have been no fans and I’ve had to go out there and pitch when I was growing up.
“Just like a bunch of big kids playing in a stadium, I think we’re going to be able to do it.”