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Max Scherzer didn’t need to pitch for his presence to be felt at the All-Star Game

Max Scherzer didn’t need to pitch for his presence to be felt at the All-Star Game

CLEVELAND -- Max Scherzer’s back tightened following his start June 30 in Detroit. He worked on it, managing the rigidity, and brought himself to a place where he could throw 100 pitches his final night on the mound before the All-Star Break.

Afterward, his back remained stiff. He huddled with manager Davey Martinez and general manager Mike Rizzo to discuss the idea of pitching in the All-Star Game on just two days rest. Scherzer’s spirit desperately wanted to. His brain was aware it wasn’t a great idea, so he withdrew. 

“I knew there was no way I was going to throw on two days rest knowing we have a huge second half in front of us,” Scherzer said. 

Yet, he still came to Cleveland to hold court and see everyone. Scherzer turns 35 years old at the end of July. He has two years remaining on his contract. No one mentioned it, but time is running out. Maybe he makes it two more times. Maybe five, when he pitches until he is 40 after finding a new contract. Whenever it stops, there won’t be regrets. Only fun during an evolution from first-time All-Star in 2013 to his seventh consecutive appearance, where he is the diabolical grandpa overseeing the youngest lineup in National League All-Star history.

Scherzer fielded questions about everything Monday during his Media Day time: the ball, the value of college pitching vs. going into the professional lower levels, the Braves, why clubhouse atmosphere matters, pitching tactics (those went mostly unanswered), Washington’s surge, and, of course, his most recent gaffe, running onto the field to incorrectly celebrate in the eighth inning Sunday. What happened?

“I saw [Sean] Doolittle pitch, and for whatever reason in my head, I just thought it was the ninth, just thought if [Anthony[ Rendon hits a double here, [Adam] Eaton is going to score, this is a walk-off win. So, turns out to be that was a game-winning run. Everybody had a good laugh at my expense. The more you watch it, the more you laugh at it.”

Martinez put it on a loop in the now-bubbly clubhouse. 

Scherzer has taken a burgeoning amount of flak since bunting a ball into his face, causing a black eye. His premature on-field celebration followed. Prior, he was the primary driver of clubhouse shenanigans because of his mouth. The multiple recent botches have put his teammates in a premier position to make up ground on all of Scherzer’s prior ribbing.

And, he loves it. A trigger for him Monday came when he was asked about the value of clubhouse chemistry, a rare unquantifiable portion of baseball. 

“Everybody thinks this is just a math game and a numbers game, and you just look at WAR, and you know your team,” Scherzer said. “We can have projections and models -- you name it -- and [they think] that’s baseball. That’s not baseball. 

“Baseball’s played by humans. We’re humans. We experience emotions and we’re pretty good about channeling what it takes to compete every single day, but when you get a good clubhouse and you get some good energy, good vibes, it makes it easy for everybody to compete at the same level. I feel like that’s what we have going on. We have a very good clubhouse. Everybody’s kind of settled in their roles. We all know how to clown on each other, have fun, when anybody makes a mistake -- my God, I’ve been making [big] mistakes lately everybody is getting a good laugh at -- that’s a sign of a winning club.”

They weren’t. Like questions about the baseball (“aerodynamic” is all Scherzer would say, quoting Commissioner Rob Manfred), and about a possible future contract (gasped, glared, said he was worried about the second half, not that), a query about the state of the Nationals when they returned from New York on May 23 following a sweep put Scherzer’s gloves up.

“I remember thinking if we come back from New York after a sweep, you guys [the media] would have thought we’re the worst team in the world,” Scherzer said. “In baseball, you’re never as bad as you think you are and you’re never as good as you think you are. We just went out there and just started playing good baseball. As a team, we quit making the stupid mistakes that had been plaguing us in the beginning of the season. When you stop making mistakes at the level we were making them, everybody on the team, we started playing better baseball and started winning games.”

Atlanta slugger Freddie Freeman sat two slots down. His familiarity with Scherzer is deep -- and they used the media session for a mutual competitive lovefest. Scherzer called Freeman his toughest opponent. Freeman laughed when told that, then explained why dealing with Scherzer is so troubling.

“If he throws a ball to you, you know he’s setting you up for something else,” Freeman said. “That’s the hardest thing.”

Hall-of-Famer turned MLB Network analyst Pedro Martinez understands Freeman’s issue. He used the same approach as Scherzer, did so with three high-end pitches, and did it year after year. 

“There’s so many similarities that we have,” Martinez told NBC Sports Washington. “When I watch him, I watch myself. That said, one thing I have to give Max Scherzer is he’s stayed healthier than I did. And when you look at the way he throws the ball and how unorthodox he is, I thought he was going to get hurt more often. But that speaks volumes about the way he prepares, the way he’s ready. How he is mentally.

“He’s 35 (soon), but I’m not afraid of that. With Max Scherzer, he’s unique in every aspect.”

And this All-Star Game turned out to be unique for Scherzer. He brought his first daughter, Brooklyn, with him to Cleveland. She's not quite two years old. They went across the red carpet together Tuesday -- him in a summer suit ensemble, her with a white bow in her hair -- before the game. He never envisioned that scenario when he first showed at the All-Star Game in 2013.

Scherzer was introduced last among the National League reserves Tuesday night, the Nationals’ lone physical representative at All-Star Game after Rendon’s decision to stay in Washington and work on his health. Scherzer expects to pitch again Sunday in Philadelphia. He smiled when announced, but inside, he was irritated -- or “so ticked,” to use his pregame phrase about not pitching. It was the right thing for the team. Showing up was the right thing for the game. He just had to stay away from the mound.

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Juan Soto breaks out imaginary broom after Nationals complete sweep of Cubs

Juan Soto breaks out imaginary broom after Nationals complete sweep of Cubs

As is customary around the MLB, the moments following a victory usually results in the three outfielders meeting up to celebrate. As they converge toward center field, some sort of dance, handshake or motion is shared between the group.

With the Nationals finishing off a three-game sweep of the Chicago Cubs on Sunday, Juan Soto added a little something extra to mark the occasion.

Mimicking the sweeping motion, the left fielder didn't need a real broom to show Cubs fans what his team had just done.

Soto and the Nats have every reason to celebrate a dominant Players' Weekend in the Windy City. Going against a Cubs team that has been strong at home, Washington came in and took care of business all three days.

After picking up 9-3 and 7-2 wins on Friday and Saturday, the Nationals battled through 11 back-and-forth innings on Sunday to earn a 7-5 victory. Soto played a large part in the outcome, finishing 3-for-6 with an RBI as he continues to rake in 2019.

Getting a sweep in Chicago's NL ballpark isn't all that come, as the weekend was the first time the Cubs were swept at home all season and the first time since 2005 the Nationals have pulled off the feat at Wrigley. To put that in perspective, Soto was only seven years old at the time.

Everything is clicking for the Nats as of late, and the sweep on the North Side is just the latest enjoyable moment. 

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Sleep-deprived Nationals win one they probably shouldn’t have in Chicago behind Aníbal Sánchez

Sleep-deprived Nationals win one they probably shouldn’t have in Chicago behind Aníbal Sánchez

The clubhouse wears have never been packed so quickly. Washington was sprinting as a group to get out of Pittsburgh on Thursday night following another three-hour-plus game with a 1:20 p.m. local start looming in Wrigley Field on Friday.

Max Scherzer finished his postgame comments in less than four minutes, then quickly moved to get cleaned up and join the others. Most lockers were vacant by the time media members reached the clubhouse, which wasn’t long after the game ended. 

Despite the scramble for minutes saved, Friday was supposed to be a loss. Las Vegas knew. The players and management knew. It was a bad spot. Night game, onto a plane, then a day game against a team which played at home the previous afternoon, and was 44-19 there -- the second-best home record in the National League. 

And yet, Nationals 9, Cubs 3, and it wasn’t that close.

Some bloops fell, some situations turned out lucky. Though, Aníbal Sánchez dominated. No voodoo or charms were involved.

He went through 8 ⅓ innings before being removed after 112 pitches. He was provided a shot to finish the game -- just 15 National League pitchers have a complete game this season -- but couldn’t. A rare Anthony Rendon throwing error cost him an out, then his opportunity for a solo close to the afternoon in Chicago.

Sánchez threw 31 four-seam fastballs, 31 cutters and 28 “splitters” among his 112 pitches. He worked as a marionettist, pulling strings to change positions and outcomes throughout the day. Matt Grace finished the game. No high-end reliever was used, resetting a bullpen which had to cover five innings in Pittsburgh on Thursday.

The offense beat up Jon Lester. He didn’t make it out of the fifth inning. Everyone in the lineup -- including Sánchez -- picked up a hit. Trea Turner’s single extended his on-base streak to 30 games.

Sánchez’s work piggybacked on what the other starters did against woeful Pittsburgh. Nationals starters have allowed two earned runs in the first five games of this seven-game road trip. The offense has averaged 8.2 runs in that span. It’s hard to fathom they lost once with both sides operating in such fashion.

All of this is just a continuation of a massive turnaround. Washington is 52-26 since its nadir May 24. Only the Dodgers -- who host the Yankees on Friday night -- have a better record in that span, and by just a half-game. They have won 10 of 12 and 13 of 17. Fivethirtyeight.com now gives the Nationals a 90 percent chance to make the postseason (this includes the wild-card game).

Wins like Friday emphatically move that needle. The Cubs are trying to wind their way into the postseason. They were also set up for a clear advantage thanks to the schedule. Instead, Sánchez, throwing as slow as 68 mph and as fast as 91, controlled the day, the offense rolled through the afternoon and everyone was ready for bed after a surprise win.

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