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Coming fast: A hard start to the 2021 season doesn’t get any easier for the Washington Nationals

Buckle up for a bumpy first road trip

MLB: Game Two-Atlanta Braves at Washington Nationals
It doesn’t get any easier for Victor Robles and the Washington Nationals with their first road trip a tour of the teams they defeated in the 2019 National League playoffs.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Even after living through the horrors of 2020, Washington Nationals fans had better grab a helmet and a bat. Because 2021 is coming at us fast and hard.

We were all happy when Davey Martinez cooked up a lineup to beat Atlanta on Opening Day, after the team had to place nine players on the Injured List because of COVID.

But less than 24 hours later, the Nats found themselves looking up at Atlanta in the standings after dropping both games of a seven-inning doubleheader, one a slugfest; the other a pitchers’ duel. Both might have turned out differently if they’d been nine-inning games, but the team can only play with the rules of the day.

Up next, the first road trip. And it’s not just any road trip. It starts with the home opener for the Los Angeles Dodgers — or as they like to be known, the defending World Series champions.

We’re going to have to put our faith in the “Replacements” a little longer, and maybe even down the road.

“You’re going to get an opportunity,” Martinez said when asked how he makes youngsters feel part of the team.

“I mean, I play everybody as you guys know, and for the most part they all did well.”

The Dodgers were not on the Nationals’ schedule in the COVID-shortened, 60-game season that preceded that World Series victory. The Nats and the Dodgers haven’t seen each other on a baseball field since Michael A. Taylor’s diving catch of Justin Turner’s fly ball to end the 2019 National League Division Series, capping a legendary 7-3 victory in Game 5.

Both teams have undergone significant changes since that October night almost two years ago.

But still the working impression is that the Dodgers are the champs until proven otherwise.

The Nats also have yet to face a Dodger lineup featuring Mookie Betts (348/.464/.565) or an LA pitching staff featuring Trevor Bauer (1-0, 4.15 ERA).

The Dodgers lost on Opening Day before winning five straight and find themselves in their customary place atop the NL West standings.

How’s that ring-and-banner ceremony going to feel across the field? How’s it feel to be at the top of the dugout steps to celebrate what looks like a walk-off, and then have to go back after a catch at the wall? LA knows about that, too.

It doesn’t get any easier. Up next are the St. Louis Cardinals, another team not on the Nats’ 2020 schedule. The last time the Cardinals saw the Nationals on a baseball field, they were swinging and missing... and swinging and missing... and swinging and missing some more... in being swept by the eventual World Series champs in the 2019 NLCS.

Think it means anything to them to play a team that embarrassed them last time out? Think Max Scherzer would curse at his own mother if she were standing in against him?

The Nationals have never faced a Cardinal lineup featuring Nolan Arenado (.345/.367/.586 2HR) or a St. Louis pitching staff featuring Giovanny Gallegos (2-0, 0.00 ERA).

The trip is doubly hard because of the 11 total inactive players who could have made a difference in the Atlanta series and could do so again on this crucial road trip.

Veteran catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who once did not want to play in Washington, could become a Nats’ legend if he continues to hold down home plate ably in place of Yan Gomes and Alex Avila.

Lucroy and Martinez had a talk after Opening Day.

“He’s such a positive guy,” Matrtinez said, “but he understands the situation, and he just said, ‘I’m ready. When you put me in I’ll be ready. I know why I’m here.’”

Hernán Pérez and Andrew Stevenson are also going to be a bigger part of the Nationals’ 2021 story than we imagined.

“I talked to a lot of these guys, especially the guys who were in the Alternate Site and I told them I said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to stay ready. You never know what’s going to happen,’ especially in this day and age,” Martinez said.

Nine major leaguers, Alex Avila, Josh Bell, Patrick Corbin, Yan Gomes, Josh Harrison, Brad Hand, Jon Lester, Jordy Mercer and Kyle Schwarber, will return in stages, but the call-ups might again have to come up big for the Nats to avoid a deep early season hole.

“Regardless of what you want to say, they’re a big part of our club,“ Martinez said. “And they’re going to help us. It so happens that they had to come up here and help us now, but I see these guys coming up here and helping us throughout the whole year.”

“We know everything is pretty much status quo,” Martinez said. “We don’t know much except for we do know the guys, health-wise, the guys are feeling good, they’re getting excited to come back, so as soon as we can get these guys back we’ll get them back.”

“These guys understand what the situation is. And I’m glad that these guys, that they’ve been so positive and been so energetic, and just watching them all, they’ve been together for some time now, so watching them all just congregate together and talk and speak and talk about the game, it’s been a lot of fun.”

So buckle up Nationals fans. Grab some security, protection, comfort — whatever you need to get through this road trip. 2021 is coming at the Nats fast, and we’ll soon know if they can keep up with it.