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Max Scherzer loses a round, but wins the fight

Max Scherzer loses a round, but wins the fight

WASHINGTON -- Everything outside the damage framing his right eye was standard when Max Scherzer walked toward right field around 6:40 p.m. Wednesday. He went through his usual running routine before graduating to long toss with bullpen catcher Octavio Martinez then moving into the bullpen, where Kurt Suzuki waited.

As Scherzer warmed, fans lined up against the silver rail in section 127. The second bullpen catcher, Nilson Robledo, sat on a folding chair. Martinez stood and moved his head left to right as warmup pitches sizzled past. Pitching coach Paul Menhart flanked Scherzer with a towel over his right shoulder. When Scherzer took a water break during warmups, Menhart took his towel, wrapped it around Scherzer’s neck then scrubbed the sweat from his head and bruised eye while looking every bit the part of corner man. Only the Q-tip and vaseline were absent.

At question when the day began was if Scherzer would even make it this far. Scherzer was still asleep when manager Davey Martinez met with reporters in the morning before the doubleheader against Philadelphia began. Martinez was under the impression then Scherzer would pitch later in the evening, but did not know that for sure until Scherzer woke up, called trainer Paul Lessard and said he was ready to go. Not long after he confirmed himself ready, Scherzer arrived at the park where he practiced bunting in the batting cage. He finished his session with swings and a shout of “Let’s go!”

A final exultant spin and slap of the glove followed an 86-mph slider that closed Scherzer’s night -- forever the “Blackeye game” -- and sent it into lore three hours after he warmed up. A day after becoming national news, and being laughed at by his wife, Erica, for bloodying himself in BP, Scherzer threw seven scoreless innings for an ascending Nationals team which swept a doubleheader from Philadelphia. The opener was a 6-2 win. The nightcap a 2-0 victory anchored by Scherzer’s ornery performance while the swelling under his eye jiggled.

Before he arrived Wednesday, Martinez decided to dispatch fresh black T-shirts which said, “Stay in the fight” on the front and “162+” on the back -- a creation from him and director of mental conditioning, Mark Campbell. “I thought it was perfect timing to get them out,” Martinez said.

Asked about the “plus” on the back, Martinez added, “That’s what you play for.”

Such swagger would prompt eye-rolls three weeks ago when the Nationals staggered home from New York. Martinez’s job was in jeopardy -- to a degree. The season was in severe jeopardy. They are 15-7 since, a run good enough to push them three games under .500 for the first time since April 29. The spiraling Mets lost, so Washington hopped them into third place. The Nationals had not held that position since April 19.

Pitch 117 from Scherzer is one of the reasons they arrived in such a spot. He was tiring, J.T. Realmuto was up, and the tying run was on second. It was at-bat number 40 for Realmuto against Scherzer. General familiarity is one thing. To have faced an astute catcher that many times was another, which is why the final strike provided Scherzer so much sizzle when he left the mound.

“When Realmuto gets in the box, we've had a ton of history and we've faced each other so much, I just know it comes down to execution,” Scherzer said. “I was able to get ahead in the count and execute a good slider. That's where [Kurt Suzuki] and I, that just shows you where Zuk and I are at. I was praying for him to throw down a 1-2 slider and he called it. I was on the mound, just hey, just execute this, execute this, stay through this, don’t' get too far ahead of yourself, and was able to throw the pitch exactly the way I wanted to and get out of a jam and keep that a 1-0 ballgame.”

Realmuto became Scherzer’s 10th strikeout. Jean Segura made it to third base in the first inning. No other Phillies runner made it past second against Scherzer. His ERA has dropped to 2.62. He leads the National League in strikeouts. He doesn’t miss starts -- makes his “posts” as he calls them in old-time fashion -- whenever they come up. “Competitiveness” is always referenced when speaking reverently of Scherzer. Perhaps “reliability” is a more rewarding word. The first, presumably, leads to the latter.

“It’s probably one of the most impressive things -- I can’t let him hear me, I can’t toot Max too much to his face,” Brian Dozier said when looking for clearance in the clubhouse. “It really is one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in awhile. He’s probably the best pitcher in our generation and you don’t get that status unless you take the ball every fifth day no matter if you’re doing good, doing bad, got a broken nose, you always want the ball.”

“I was kind of joking with him, ‘Oh you’re throwing today?’ He kind of gave me the go-to-hell look. ‘Of course, I’m throwing today, what do you mean?’ That’s Max. It showed up today. He had really good stuff. Some of the best stuff I’ve seen.“

It was a visceral drama. Scherzer said the pain was limited, which left his pride likely more damaged than his face. Years of needling circled back at him following his viral gaffe in batting practice. Jokes about his appearance following a broken nose were made in the clubhouse. An NC State football helmet Trea Turner typically keeps in his locker was on the floor in front of Scherzer’s chair. A hand-written note was taped to a corner wall next to Scherzer’s locker with advice: “If you try bunting tonight, please do us all a favor and wear this.” The line to razz an incessant needler filled deep and quick.

“My phone's been blowing up, everybody calling and giving me flak,” Scherzer said. “I love it. If you can't talk trash on me right now, you never will.”

With that, he smiled, and the blood-filled pocket under his eye was raised. He could laugh 36 hours later after becoming a national punchline because showing up and getting it done is always a way to have the final say. He did both Wednesday.

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If teams start 19-31 like the Nationals, it really is over in a 50-game season

If teams start 19-31 like the Nationals, it really is over in a 50-game season

To put 50 games in context, just flashback to last season. It’s easy enough. Say it: 19-31. If the Nationals could, they would trademark those numbers together.

Fifty games is a flash. Almost a death knell to the eventual 2019 World Series champions. That’s a season over in late May. Think of it this way: Teams play around 30 games in a normal spring training alone.

The owners have pushed this number into the public with their non-counter-counter to the players’ suggestion of 114 games. Commissioner Rob Manfred is trying to use the March agreement between players and owners as a cudgel. Players are refusing to take a further pay cut on top of the one already negotiated. Manfred in turn is saying, “Fine. Then we will schedule the amount of games that are in line with what you are being paid.”

In play now is the 48-game season, according to ESPN. A smidge under 50. A full blitz that would be looked back at as a farce if it’s attempted to be played in the regular way. Playing half a season in the traditional manner is probably the minimum for any legitimacy. Even then, 2020 will be awash in caveats.

The Nationals’ 2020 recovery came against restrictive odds. The manager was supposed to be fired. Some suggested trading the best players, and to do it sooner than later. Season simulations said the Nationals were done. Or as close to it as possible.

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A 50- or 48-game season would cook anyone who has a bad two weeks. Lose a frontline starter? It’s over. Have your shortstop and leadoff hitter hit on the finger by a pitch and miss three weeks? It’s over. Half a season feels like a baseball sprint. Fifty games or less defines the league’s desperation to put some pennies back in its pocket in 2020.

There is one fun idea around a 50-game season. It was hatched at Fangraphs. The premise is one big 50-game tournament. Not the usual three-game series in this town, and four-game series in that city.
Fangraphs makes the on-point mathematical argument that 50 games determines next to nothing when comparing the best in the league to the mediocre. It’s just games for the sake of games.

Since baseball is trying to wade through extraordinary times, why not attempt something extraordinary, such as the tournament?

The model used at Fangraphs included 32 teams, all 30 major-league clubs plus two futures teams, one from each league. Let’s use that premise.

Stage the whole thing in the Texas Rangers’ new park -- Texas is already saying it will allow fans. Have a loser’s bracket. Make the final a five-game series. Pay the players what was already negotiated. Pin more money to the outcome. Run it from early July to the end of September. That way, you still play through much of the summer but duck under a possible fall coronavirus spike the owners are so wary of.

No caveats about if the season was long enough for an authentic champion. This is a complete outlier. The tournament year. Players wore microphones. Some kid from Double-A struck out Bryce Harper in a big at-bat. No leagues. Everyone in the same pot. Have some fun amid an historically troubling time.

What’s not working is the public whining from both sides. The inability to make a deal. The lack of common ground. Both groups are working toward one idea: loss mitigation. A 50-game season does little of that and carries even less validity. Just ask a team that opened last year 19-31.

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MLB return: Union fires back at owners in latest statement, reject additional concessions

MLB return: Union fires back at owners in latest statement, reject additional concessions

The latest whack of the negotiation tether ball came Thursday night when Tony Clark, the executive director of the MLBPA, issued a statement of discontent.

“In this time of unprecedented suffering at home and abroad, Players want nothing more than to get back to work and provide baseball fans with the game we all love. But we cannot do this alone,” it began.

Clark went on to cite the league’s most recent suggestion of a “dramatically shortened” season “unless Players negotiate salary concessions.” The league suggested a 50-game season would be reasonable for the amount of money players agreed to in salary following a late-March negotiation.

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The statement went on to refer to the league’s stance as a “threat,” as opposed to the players' proposal, which in Clark’s view, was designed to move the negotiations forward. He rattled off the various items in the union’s proposal, which was framed around a 114-game season: more games, two years of expanded playoffs, salary deferrals and the exploration of additional “jewel events” (All-Star Game, etc.).

Clark said a conference call with the MLBPA’s eight-person executive board, which includes Max Scherzer, and several other player leaders concluded “the league’s demand for additional concessions was resoundingly rejected.”

Clark went on to say the players are ready to compete and get back on the field.

The union’s reaction to MLB’s non-reaction is not a surprise. Players are adamant they are not taking further salary cuts. The league solidly believes salaries should -- and need to be -- negotiated if there is to be some form of 2020 season. Everyone continues to wait for a solution.

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