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If the Nationals’ season isn’t over, it’s close

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If the Nationals’ season isn’t over, it’s close

NEW YORK -- Dealing with tomorrow has often become the only palatable way for the Nationals to forget yesterday.

They lose in eye-gouging fashion, roll in the next day to reset, and, at least in New York, find a topper. That formula has them on a train home from what could have been a series for re-emergence, but instead placed them in a worse place than they started. Washington is 19-31 following a sweep in Flushing. It would have to go 71-41 (a .634 winning percentage) to reach 90 wins. If it’s not already, the season is on the verge of being over. Manager Davey Martinez disputed that idea.

“I mean we're not out of it that's for sure, I can tell you that right now," Martinez said after Thursday’s 6-4 loss. “Like I said, everyday we're close, we compete, we're in every game. Now we just got to finish games.”

A slog-filled drive from midtown to Queens delivered the tired team back to its baseball quarters Thursday morning. Sean Doolittle changed then pulled his red hood up, sitting at his locker 10 hours after he stated he was “disgusted” with himself for Wednesday’s crash. Such a devastating night has been common for the 2019 Nationals. It was not for Doolittle. He hit a batter for the first time since May 29, 2018. He allowed four earned runs in an outing for the fifth time in 348 career appearances (1.4 percent of the time he pitches). In keeping with the season, the worst-possible outcome arrived at the worst-possible time, then another terrible one followed.

Martinez remained upbeat, sipping a morning drink concoction common in his native Puerto Rico. He rewatched Wednesday's game -- a masochist’s errand this season -- as he regularly does, went to sleep around 2 a.m., awoke at 7, arrived at Citi Field around 9:45. The leash on his future has been shortened greatly by the four failing days in New York.

The Nationals wandered out for stretch and light throwing in front of an oddball scene. Thursday was “Weather Day” at Citi Field with the Big Apple-famous Mr. G hosting in his Mets jersey. Mr. G  -- known to his friends as Irv Gikofsy, New York City’s most popular weatherman -- kicked up a “Let’s go Mets!” chant down the third base line while the Nationals relievers ran routes and caught a foam football to get loose in the same part of the park. The recently re-emerged Mrs. Met, who popped back up in 2013 after decades of dormancy, used her giant noggin to nod along.

The game was another compilation of missed opportunities, bullpen disasters and bad luck. Washington left eight runners on base through the first six innings alone. The Mets’ path to runs was aided by slop and basics. Carlos Gomez single in the fifth. He ran to steal second, Yan Gomes’ throw went into center field, Gomez went on to third base. A sacrifice fly scored him.

J.D. Davis singled in the sixth. Todd Frazier was hit by a pitch. Stephen Strasburg’s wild pitch moved them both over. Another sacrifice fly scored one, a Wilson Ramos infield single scored the other. The Mets led, 3-1.

The Nationals didn’t score with runners on first and third and one out in the first. They did not score after Juan Soto’s leadoff triple in the second inning. They did not score after a one-out double in the third. They did not score with runners on second and third and one out in the fourth. They did not score with a runner on second and one out in the fifth. This is not hyperbole for effect. It’s facts. Sigh-worthy ones.

The only effective offseason signings are Kurt Suzuki and Patrick Corbin. The others have not just resided below expectations, they have been among the worst in the league at their position.

Gomes, acquired in a trade, leads the league in passed balls. He’s committed three errors in his 29 starts. Coming into Thursday, he had a 65 OPS-plus (100 is average).

Brian Dozier started the afternoon with a 73 OPS-plus and -0.5 WAR. Those two numbers would be worse if not for a recent uptick both in the field and plate from him.

And, the most egregious failure of the offseason has been Trevor Rosenthal’s saga. Martinez was asked directly Wednesday if Rosenthal simply has the “yips”. He said they still believe Rosenthal’s problems are mechanics, not thoughts, despite him throwing baseballs to the backstop in central Pennsylvania. The luxury-tax averse Nationals are paying him $6 million to do so.

Finally, Thursday was enough for Martinez to shed his tranquility. After Howie Kendrick was ejected in the top of the eighth, Martinez ran to home plate to start an argument of his own. He half-circled home plate umpire Bruce Dreckman, yelled, pointed and carried on in a manner that begged Dreckman to throw him out. He did. Martinez went from rankled to furious. He spiked his hat, kicked the dirt, and yelled some more. The event provided his third career ejection and looked to be among the final moves of a manager on the verge of returning to private life.

A strange thing followed: his team rallied for three runs to take a 4-3 lead. No matter. There’s no goodness Washington’s bullpen can’t undermine. Wander Suero gave up a three-run homer in the eighth to Gomez. New day, different reliever, same ear-bleeding outcome.

Which again made talking about tomorrow the only way to deal with the grotesqueness of today. Trouble is tomorrow may not matter anymore.

“Things are going to change,” Martinez said. “Things are going to change. And I know that. So we just got to keep pounding away, keep playing baseball. There's good players in that clubhouse, really good players. We'll turn things around.”



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Max Scherzer is sort of OK with no longer hitting

Max Scherzer is sort of OK with no longer hitting

A multitude of markers spanned the 2019 Nationals season. From 19-31, to Kurt Suzuki’s walk-off home run against the New York Mets, to the postseason rallies.

Max Scherzer’s busted face is also among the easy things to remember about 2019. He was starting batting practice with bunts on June 18. This is standard for every hitter. First the bunts, then the swings. Pitchers tend to practice this more for obvious reasons.

Scherzer butchered a bunt -- later admitting he was trying to mess with third base coach Bob Henley, who was pitching -- and the ball kicked up into his face. His nose burst. Henley looked on aghast. Scherzer walked to the dugout, then the clubhouse with blood leaking from his face and confusion following him.

A day later, he pitched against Philadelphia with the broken nose, marching around the mound with brown, blue and black eyes. His 10th strikeout of the night came on a slider, ended the seventh inning and sent him into a celebratory spin.

He will not hit, or practice hitting, this year.

The designated hitter will be used in the National League for the first time. Scherzer will no longer bat, which means one of his favorite activities is going away. But, the rules of the sport will finally be unified during its championship series, something he has long advocated for.


“Especially this year, given the nature of what we are looking at here, this is an interesting time to have the league under one set of rules to see what this looks like,” Scherzer told NBC Sports Washington. “Does it open up new opportunities we didn’t even think about?”

If Scherzer never hits again, he will finish with a .193 batting average. He hit one home run. It came in 2017 against Chris O'Grady of the Miami Marlins. Scherzer ran around the bases with a smile on his face, then was initially ignored in the dugout.

He was one of the few pitchers who practiced hitting on a regular basis. Scherzer also liked to attempt stolen bases if he reached and was not held on at first base. This gave Davey Martinez significant stress. Scherzer stole three bases and was never caught. It would be a fun footnote on his coming Hall of Fame plaque.


In general, Scherzer is intrigued by the rules tests and changes of 2020. He was adamant in spring training the playoff format should not be changed. He’s withholding his current opinion -- for now -- on placing a runner at second base to start extra innings.

“Kind of with this realignment, where we play the NL East and the AL East, it’s a very fascinating, to me, and very exciting divisional format of how teams are going to be playing across the country,” Scherzer said. “Is that good or bad? I don’t know. We’ve got to see. Is that worth changing the rules of the game, where we’re at going forward? I don’t know. That remains to be seen as well. For me, I’m just going to appreciate what 2020 is and what it’s going to bring and what we’ve got to do to go out there and compete and win.”

In his case, that no longer includes hitting.

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Exclusive: Max Scherzer talks 'ugly' negotiations and 'crazy' MLB season ahead

Exclusive: Max Scherzer talks 'ugly' negotiations and 'crazy' MLB season ahead

Max Scherzer gathered the kids and came up to Washington this week because there was finally a reason to do so.

Wednesday marked the opening of Spring Training 2.0. Friday, the first baseball workouts since the sport came to a hard stop March 12 are scheduled to take place. July 23 is expected to be Opening Day. Baseball, at least in framework, is back.

Which is why Scherzer returned to the District. He remained in West Palm Beach, Fla., after organized baseball stopped. Workouts happened six days a week thanks to a throwing partner and bands and weights taken from the minor-league side of the spring training facility before it closed. He typically does not have a home gym to use. But, he found a way to manipulate things in Florida in order to stay on track month after month.

As a member of the union’s eight-person executive subcommittee, he also spent a lot of time involved in the negotiations -- “sparring” is a more accurate word -- between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association. The process dribbled into the public, caused myriad eye rolls, and generally left everyone dissatisfied. In the end, the original agreement from March 26 was adhered to. A short season is coming. Two brutish winters will follow.

“I think at the forefront [of negotiations] was hey, we had an agreement, we wanted to honor that,” Scherzer told NBC Sports Washington on Wednesday. “There was no reason we thought to make a separate deal because we made a deal after the pandemic had started. For us, it was about trying to execute that deal as best as possible.”


Why did it take three grouse-filled months to arrive at a place they were already at?

“Because the business of the game is never pretty,” Scherzer said. “It’s always ugly. If it ever gets into the public, it’s always going to be ugly, and obviously it did get into the public. There’s nothing we can do about that. There’s never just an easy fight about the business of the game. It’s always going to be testy, it’s always going to be like that. The best thing we can do is keep that out of the public, but unfortunately, that’s not what happened.”

Scherzer was moved enough by the head-butting dynamics to send three tweets. He so rarely uses his official account to reach its 322,997 followers, he had to reset his password so he could login.

But, the only result of a public debate was a distaste for the process. Especially amid a pandemic and country-wide protests. Squabbling over money benefited no one.

At first, health was the prime point of the negotiations. How would the league protect the players? Would the players accept the protocol and risk? Did anything else matter if optimum protections were not in place? What, exactly, was everyone dealing with here?

Those concepts seemed to fade, usurped by a debate about money. The coronavirus pandemic hit a lull, then rebooted, and is now rumbling through Florida, Texas, Arizona, California and other states in a way it was not before. Accordingly, health returned as a paramount discussion point between the sides, and a question was finally addressed: should there even be a season?

“I think the ‘should be’ question we were trying to wrestle with was just to make sure that we can put on a league and really feel confident that we were going to be safe,” Scherzer said. “And the foremost answer to that was the testing. Make sure that if we were getting tested at a high enough frequency, it really clears a lot of big hurdles out of the way for us. The testing, as good as it is, it’s not perfect. So, it’s also going to take protocols by players themselves on and off the field to make sure we can continue to play baseball in the safest way possible.”

It wasn’t safe enough for some. Joe Ross and Ryan Zimmerman decided they would not play this season.

“I respect their decisions,” Scherzer said. “This is a personal decision for everybody. I understand where they are coming from. So, at the end of the day, I get it. This is a nasty thing that’s going around. For some people, the comfort level is just not there and I respect it. For the guys who do choose [to play], that’s great. And we’ll just have the team go forward and try to win this year.”


Scherzer said he never considered not playing. Instead, he will be at the park to be tested, try to build his innings (he says he has a couple in him now and will be “ready to compete” when the season starts), and manage an uncertain situation as best as possible. There is nothing normal coming up. Understanding that becomes crucial.

“It’s going to be crazy, it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be difficult,” Scherzer said. “We’re going to say that every single day. So, just get used to it and realize every team has to go through that. That’s what it’s going to take to win the World Series this year. A team that can battle through this together and make sure they do the protocols the best way possible and keep their team healthy seems to have the best chance to win.

“I think at the end of day, that’s what we’re all signing up to do, to continue to play baseball and we’re very fortunate to continue to play baseball in the middle of this pandemic. A lot of people have done a lot of work to make this happen. So it’s our duty to go out there and play baseball at the highest level possible.”

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