WASHINGTON -- Aaron Nola watched the throw reach first base for the final out of the fourth inning, stepped off the mound at Nationals Park after completing another almost effortless inning, and began walking toward the dugout.
Nola, who pitched five scoreless innings -- yet recorded 17 outs -- in a 7-2 exhibition win over the Nationals on Saturday night, cruised through a lineup of mostly regulars and used just 62 pitches.
The Phillies’ first game in more than four months provided enough validation that Nola is on track to start Friday when the season begins.
“I feel like I’m ready,” Nola said.
But after he took three steps off the mound, Nola had to turn around. He forgot his personal rosin bag, which all pitchers are required to bring to and from the mound as part of MLB’s coronavirus protocols. This way, pitchers aren’t spreading the same powder on their hands.
Maybe there are some things for Nola to iron out before Friday.
“It’ll take some time to get used to,” he said. “The rosin bag isn’t that big of a deal, I just have to remember it when the inning’s over. It’s going to be harder to not lick my fingers when it gets a little chilly out just because that’s what I’ve always done. But it’s not going to matter to me in the summer months, in the heat, because it’s humid and I can use the rosin bag.”
Nola worked so quickly on Saturday that the Phillies asked to keep him on the mound for a fourth out in the second and fifth innings. The righthander allowed just one hit, struck out four, and walked one.
It was not a coincidence that Nola was selected to pitch exactly five days before opening day. It was instead a final test to determine if he could be ready to start Friday against Miami.
“It felt good. I’ve faced those guys a lot of times, but it felt good to get on an opposing team’s mound and face their hitters,” Nola said. “Obviously, it’s weird with no fans, but the music and fan noise in the background helped a little bit.
“Pitching is always pitching when you’re facing another team. I think definitely, when the season starts and the games are counted, it will feel a little more real. But it was definitely good to get on the mound against an opposing team.”
Nola missed the beginning of summer camp while he quarantined after coming in contact with someone infected with COVID-19. There was some concern that that would delay his readiness for the season. Saturday night erased any doubt.
Add J.T. Realmuto to Saturday night’s lineup and it could be the nine batters manager Joe Girardi trots out Friday for the season opener. Facing Scherzer provided a nice challenge just before the season.
Jay Bruce was the designated hitter and Roman Quinn played center field.
“I liked the swings, I liked our at-bats,” Girardi said. “He settled down and we saw the real Max Scherzer. When you have a starter of that caliber, a lot of times if you don’t get to him early, you’re not getting to him, and our guys were able to do that. That’s encouraging.”
The game was the first major-league exhibition since summer camp resumed, yet it was not on TV. With fans barred, the Nationals covered some outfield seats with advertisements and constructed tents over the first rows of three sections in the lower bowl. The tents are overflow dugouts to allow for social-distancing if the regular dugouts are too crowded.
They played “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” but did not have their traditional race of former presidents. They pumped in fake crowd noise and added reactions, but the canned noise seemed to cheer as Harper’s homer traveled to right-center against Scherzer.
Maybe Nola isn’t the only one to figure out some of the newness of a strange season before it begins later this week.
“I think all of us are wondering what it’s going to be like game three, game four, game 10, game 20 without fans in the stands,” Girardi said. “I think players use fans for energy, but there was a different feel tonight, which made me feel better about what we’re doing.”
“Everything feels a little bit different, but I think everyone learns how to adapt and it becomes normal again, in a sense.”
The opening day roster began to take shape Saturday afternoon when Neil Walker was told he would make the team while two others competing for jobs were released.
Walker, a utility infielder and 11-year veteran, will be one of the five or six bench players. The 34-year-old spent last season with Miami, where he hit .261 with a .738 OPS in 381 plate appearances. He has impressed at summer camp and homered on Friday night at Citizens Bank Park. Logan Forsysthe, also a utility infielder, and lefthanded reliever Francisco Liriano were released.
“His versatility where he can play and also the versatility of him being a switch hitter,” Girardi said of what put Walker on the roster. “We thought he was a good fit. I think the dynamics changed a lot going to the American League rules and playing only 60 games so we thought he was a good fit and that’s why we went with Neil.”