WASHINGTON — As Max Scherzer and the reigning champion Washington Nationals hosted baseball's first exhibition game in more than four months Saturday, a handful of fans watched from afar -- really far, seated on a high-rise building's glass balconies beyond left field.
Nationals owner Mark Lerner and general manager Mike Rizzo each had a better view from the Nationals Park stands, nowhere near each other and both wearing masks, part of many unusual sights and fake, piped-in sounds as Major League Baseball crept closer to next week's opening day amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"You just have to accept it. Seems like every day there's a challenge and you just have to overcome it. If this is what it's going to be, this is what's going to be," said Scherzer, the three-time Cy Young Award winner who gave up three-run shots to old friend Bryce Harper and mask-wearing Didi Gregorius in Washington's 7-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, who rode to the game in a bus.
"This is 2020 baseball," Scherzer said. "So you just have to keep a smile on your face, just embrace it and have fun with it."
Red-white-and-blue signs proclaiming the home team the "2019 world champions" adorned the mostly empty ballpark even if no spectators were present to see them for Washington's first game there against an opponent since earning the franchise's first title.
This was also the first exhibition game between two teams since spring training got called off March 12 because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Not too many folks got to see Scherzer throw 87 pitches and allow seven runs in five innings or Phillies starter Aaron Nola go five scoreless, one-hit innings as both tuned up for opening day: In addition to closed gates, there was no TV coverage.
The umpires sported masks. There was so much silence, occasionally interrupted by the hum of artificial crowd noise -- cheers even accidentally blared as Philadelphia's homers landed, before the volume was decreased -- or a stadium announcer.
"It's better," Washington manager Dave Martinez said, "than it being totally quiet."
It was a taste of what everyone can expect when games matter. Washington hosts the New York Yankees on Thursday, the first day of the delayed regular season; Philadelphia hosts Miami on Friday.
"All of us are wondering what it's going to be like — Game 3, Game 4, Game 10, Game 20 — without fans in the stands, because I think players use fans for energy," Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. "But there was a different feel tonight, which made me feel better about what we're doing."
The area around the ballpark was eerily quiet an hour before first pitch; restaurants and bars that normally would be bustling on such a sunny summer afternoon were mostly empty. The street leading from the nearest subway station to the main stadium entrance was deserted.
"It's kind of been a ghost town a little bit around here, so that's been different," Nationals outfielder Michael A. Taylor said. "But it's still nice to be back."
Taylor started because center fielder Victor Robles did not show up to this ramp-up period until Saturday. "He worked out today. Looked OK," Martinez said. "We'll see how he feels tomorrow."
Scherzer is slated to pitch the first game that matters for Washington, and the stats from his final tuneup hardly looked ideal. Still, Scherzer said he was fine with it. "I got beat around a little bit, but that's good," Scherzer said. "That's what happens in the regular season. It's not always going through lineups." ... Girardi said Nola might be able to aim for six innings and 80 pitches in Game 1.
Philadelphia granted LHP Francisco Liriano and INF Logan Forsythe their release, removed C Henri Lartigue from the player pool and optioned RHP Victor Arano to Triple-A Lehigh Valley. INF Neil Walker was told he will make the opening day roster. Girardi said Walker's versatility as a fielder and a switch-hitter worked in his favor. On the 36-year-old Liriano, the manager said: "He can still help someone, but we might go with a little more youth."