WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — It will be champions versus cheaters in a World Series rematch Saturday night when the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros play their exhibition opener.
The last time these teams that share spring training facilities matched up, the Nationals were celebrating their first World Series title in franchise history after winning Game 7 at Houston's Minute Maid Park. Since then, the Astros have become the villains of Major League Baseball, with a sign-stealing scandal sullying their reputation and casting a shadow on their 2017 World Series title.
As the Astros prepare to take the field for the first time since their cheating scam was uncovered, there's much speculation about what kind of reception they'll receive, though the players say they're focused on baseball.
"Honestly, I haven't thought about it," Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said. "But whatever it is, our job is to go there and play baseball. So I'm not too concerned about that."
There have been a handful of hecklers at camp this week as the Astros fully assembled for the first time since commissioner Rob Manfred found they used electronics to steal signs during their run to the 2017 title and again in the 2018 season. The investigation, which led to the suspensions and subsequent firings of manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow, found the Astros used the video feed from a camera in center field to see and decode the opposing catcher's signs. Players banged on a trash can to signal to batters what was coming, believing it would improve the odds of getting a hit.
One man banged on a trash can as Astros players took batting practice Monday, the same day someone yelled "cheater" at second baseman Jose Altuve as he walked by fans.
Correa, who was part of the team that was found to have stolen signs, said he knows things are going to be "tough" for the Astros on the road once the regular season opens. He doesn't expect things to be so bad during spring training.
"But there's always going to be fans that are going to go to the ballpark and have fun in their own way, and that's talking trash," Correa said. "And that's fine. You see that in every sport. So that shouldn't bother us."
New Astros manager Dusty Baker hasn't spent any time concerning himself with how the team will be received.
"I try not to worry about things because it doesn't do any good," he said. "You can anticipate this or that, but you don't really know until you get there. So I'm not really worried about the reception."
While the Astros get peppered daily with questions about their cheating and are constantly being asked to comment on the negative reactions of players around the league, their spring training facility-mates are still basking in the glow of their championship.
The Nationals continued celebrating their victory with a parade Thursday night in downtown West Palm Beach. Fans cheered as players and staff rode down the street showing off their trophy.
"In 2019 we were the best," manager Dave Martinez told the crowd at the end of the parade. "We were No. 1. We were the world champs, and I want to thank all of you for sticking behind us."
Max Scherzer will start on the mound Saturday for the Nationals. He went five innings in Washington's 6-2 win in the deciding game in Houston.
The 35-year-old with three Cy Young Awards battled injury last season — including missing a scheduled start in the World Series — but Scherzer said he's right where he needs to be and is feeling good as he prepares for his spring debut.
"Max is going to go out there and hopefully get them through the first inning, see how he feels, and if he can get out there for the second inning, that'd be great," Martinez said. "We'll cross that bridge when we get there. Right now, it's just about feel and seeing where they're at."
Saturday's game will also pit Baker against the team that let him go after the 2017 season. He's looking forward to seeing many of the people he worked with when he managed the Nationals for two years. And even though it's the first game, he knows Scherzer will be ready to go.
"I'm sure he'll probably be the same old Scherz," Baker said. "He could be pitching at a high school game and he'll be fired up."
While people could come out to heckle the Astros, they likely won't be able to direct their ire at any players who were on the teams that stole signs. Baker said he doesn't plan to play any of Houston's regulars in the opener and wants to give the "kids" a chance instead.
To that end, Houston's starter will be right-hander Cristian Javier, who was the pitcher of the year for the Astros' farm system last season.
Houston third baseman Alex Bregman, who has taken criticism in recent days for a poorly received apology during a news conference about the sign-stealing scandal, said the Astros can't spend time worrying about how fans will react. He did say it's a unique situation to open spring training against the Nationals considering their recent history.
"It's tough to play first against the team that we lost to in the World Series," he said. "But they deserved it. They outplayed us. They have a great team over there, and they really earned that World Series title."