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Washington Nationals on Opening Day being like Christmas; getting fans back in the stands + more...

The Washington Nationals are excited to get going on a full 162-game season with fans in the stands after last year’s 60-game campaign in empty ballparks...

Nationals Park Media Tour Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Davey Martinez told his players to show up for Spring Training in shape rather than using it as an opportunity to get in shape, because he wanted to hit the ground running and be set to go from Day 1 as the Washington Nationals try to bounce back from a disappointing run in 2020, which, of course, followed their World Series win in 2019. Martinez and Co. on the bench in the nation’s capital knew they would have to be ready since they come out of the gate with three against the New York Mets, and three with the Atlanta Braves in D.C. before they hit the road to play the Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals. So, yeah, they’d better be ready.

“For me, any team at any given day could beat you, so we’ve got to get ready,” Martinez said as camp wound down for the club earlier this week.

“As you know, I always say, ‘Go 1-0 every day,’ and just focus on that one game. And make it a one-game season, that’s the way we approach it.”

“I mean you’re going to have to play them at some point, so you might as well,” get it out of the way early, Ryan Zimmerman said of the tough matchups that will start his 16th run with the Nationals.

“But yeah, I think our division, it’s going to be that way all year pretty much.

“And honestly, I think what we’ve done so well, no matter who you’re playing, you’re playing a big league team, and if you don’t come out ready to play that day you’re probably going to lose.”

Houston Astros v Washington Nationals Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

Zimmerman, 36, returned to the Nationals on a 1-year/$1M deal after opting out of playing in 2020’s 60-game COVID campaign.

“I have tons of leverage when I negotiate now,” Zimmerman joked he spoke on a Zoom call with reporters today about his new deal with the team this winter.

“So they had to compete against five or six other teams, and we finally got them up to one [year] for $1M. So it was long. Just kidding.”

Zimmerman showed up at Spring Training in good shape and ended up going 13 for 27 (.481/.517/1.222) in 10 games, with two doubles and six home runs in Grapefruit League action.

Getting right into it with a tough start to the 2021 season is fine with Zimmerman.

“You have to approach every series the same way,” Zimmerman said.

“You have to have a plan and you have to execute it. And if you don’t do those things then you’re probably going to lose no matter who you’re playing. But also it’s kind of fun to start the season like that. I think to come out and obviously having the Mets that opening series and then the Braves, and then you go out to the West Coast and play the Dodgers, and then face the Cardinals, two guys that we faced in the playoffs two years go, that’s why you play the game, you want to play those teams.”

Doing so right out of the gate will give the club an early test of where they stand against the competition in the National League too.

“We’re going to have to beat these types of teams if we want to get to where we want to go,” Zimmerman added.

“I think what we do so well here is, we kind of know it’s a long season. I don’t think anyone wants to start 19-31 or start poorly. But you have to realize it’s a big picture. You know, say we come out and do really well in these first four series, it doesn’t really do much for us in June or July. If we do really poorly in these first four series, there’s no reason to press the panic button either.

“But you just have to be ready to play, and be ready to go. And we don’t make the schedule, we just kind of show up and play whoever we’re going to play, and try to have the best plan in moving forward.”

More than anything else, Martinez and his club are just excited to get back to playing with fans in the stands, even if it is only 5,000 in D.C. on Opening Day.

After 30 games in an empty Nationals Park last year, they’re ready for the fans to return to the ballpark, even if protocols are still in place for players, fans, and everyone else.

“For us, there were so many uncertainties last year, and we struggled,” Martinez explained.

“Guys struggled about why are they here. They’re worried about their families.

“They’re worried about getting it. These guys have been good though, they’ve been good all Spring Training.

St. Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

“I wanted to have some kind of normalcy this Spring Training, we talked about that right when everybody showed up, but with that being said, I told them that they have to be smart, they’ve got to follow protocols. They got to be smart at home with their families, they’ve got to stay away from public places, and these guys have done an amazing job with that.

“We went through Spring Training, everybody was healthy, nobody is sick.

“We’re going to leave, get on a plane and head to D.C., and hopefully when we get there we’re all safe, and like I said, we all test negative and we move on.

“The great news is, for everybody in this country, is that we are getting through it.

“Unfortunately a lot of lives were lost. We understand that, and that’s the awful part of it, but for the most part we’re sticking together, and we’re going to get through this, and there will be some kind of normalcy here soon.”

“First time we’re going to have fans since we were in the World Series, so I think it’s going to be loud and it’s going to be crazy,” Juan Soto said of his expectations for Opening Day.

“They’re going to try to enjoy it as much as they can, but yeah, I feel it’s going to be a great moment to be back with the fans and all of that stuff, and like I said, just try to enjoy it and see how it goes.”

“Just excited to kind of hopefully have some fans in the stands and get our Opening Day that we wish we had last year,” Stephen Strasburg said.

Strasburg, the 2019 World Series MVP, whose battles with a carpal tunnel neuritis issue led to surgery and limited him just to two starts and a total of five innings of work last season, got through Spring Training relatively healthy, though a calf issue cost him some time this spring.

New Nationals’ starter Jon Lester, who signed a 1-year/$5M deal with the club this winter, did have surgery to remove one of four parathyroid glands this spring, but got back, and resumed his work of building up for what will be his 16th big league season as well. He is excited for Opening Day even though he’s done it all before.

“Opening Day, for the baseball guys is kind of like Christmas,” Lester said.

“You get to your home park or even a road park, whatever, you just — I don’t know, there’s just a different feel when you get in a big league stadium and you walk out on that field and you do the whole presentation, you’re standing on the line with your whole team.

Washington Nationals v New York Mets Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

“You don’t do that a lot throughout the year, so it’s nice to do it early.

“It’s exciting. It’s a beginning of a new chapter for this team and each individual has a new beginning, so it’s fun. I don’t know how many this is for me as far as Opening Days, but it’s a lot and it never gets old. It’s just a joy and it’s a privilege to be out there standing on that line, or sometimes getting to pitch, every year I look forward to it.”

“I’m excited we’re starting in D.C.,” Lester added. “Kind of get — I don’t want to say, ‘get it out of the way,’ but get there and kind of get comfortable with what I’m doing and where I’m going, and walking into the right clubhouse as opposed to the visiting clubhouse, and kind of get settled. It will be nice.”

Lester’s not the only one who compared the first game of the year to a holiday.

“Kind of like Christmas,” Nationals’ Opening Day starter Max Scherzer said.

“Everybody is excited, you can’t wait for that to happen. And so you finally get to the regular season, you finally get going again. So, it’s a real exciting day.”

“I think we’re all looking forward to continuing to get back to I guess some sort of normalcy,” Zimmerman said. “So it’s exciting to have fans back.

“I think if you talk to a lot of the players, I think the one thing that they’ll say that they missed the most and I guess that was the most weird of last year was not having fans in the stands. So, I think obviously it’s different everywhere. I think we have 5,000 to start, or whatever it is, but hopefully that will go well and we can continue to increase and do whatever is safe, and hopefully by the end of the year we can be back to almost full normal.

“I know that’s probably optimistic, but yeah I think we’re all excited to get back and play and have a full season and kind of get back to a real baseball season.”

UPDATE: Unfortunately, an announcement by GM Mike Rizzo last night cast a pall over the Nationals’ Opening Day celebration.

Rizzo announced that there was one positive COVID test out of the testing they did on the 29th of March, before leaving West Palm Beach, and four players and one staff member of the team were said to have had close contact with the player who tested positive, so they were all put in quarantine and won’t be available for the season opener.

Did the news spoil Opening Day?

“I don’t know,” Opening Day starter Max Scherzer said. “You can say yes, but then you can also say no, because look, it’s still Opening Day. We’ve been playing baseball in this pandemic the whole time. We’ve been having to deal with this this whole time. Across the game we dealt with it, last year when Juan Soto had his case and we had to overcome that and play the Yankees.

“That’s what baseball and life is like right now. You got to take it — you can’t let these things beat you down. You’ve got to realize that playing baseball is what makes you happy, so still looking forward to the opportunity to play Opening Night tomorrow.”