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Max Scherzer, Sean Doolittle provide powerful voices during baseball’s search for answers

Max Scherzer, Sean Doolittle provide powerful voices during baseball’s search for answers

Sean Doolittle was willing to talk about it. The topic was union business. He’s focused, detailed and informed when any player-related financial topic is put in front of him. Being prepared is his process in general. Before Doolittle dispatches a thread of tweets, he reads multiple background sources, formulates his thoughts, looks for spaces that may lack clarity when dispatched in public.

On this particular topic, back in spring training when everything was more hopeful, he deferred. He asked if Max Scherzer had talked about the subject broached by a reporter. Told Scherzer had not, Doolittle said he would prefer to wait until Scherzer spoke. They had discussed the idea prior. So, they were working in tandem.

The pair has operated individually when addressing their personal performance or as team spokespeople when discussing the state of the Nationals. In this new setting, when a negotiating battle is underway between the union and league, and a pandemic has hurtled the sport into unprecedented territory, the two have become one of the most prominent duos in the league.

Scherzer dropped the largest statement of the negotiating period when he tweeted last week. A member of the union’s powerful eight-person executive subcommittee, and the best player among that group, Scherzer’s decree the players would not accept a further pay cut rattled the sport. An out-of-town announcer railed against the stance. The league received a large hint of the players’ coming counter-proposal. The union, through Scherzer’s rarely used social media account, had spoken.

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Days later, Doolittle countered his employer when tweeting about the Nationals players’ desire to step in and pay minor-league players in the organization. Doolittle’s Twitter account is often an outlet for his thoughts on topics from social justice to baseball matters to, of course, Star Wars. He uses the medium for consistent and steady interaction with the public. Scherzer operates differently. He stays off social media -- for the most part. He composed just four original tweets in the two years before delivering a missive via screenshot last week.

Soon, both will be gone. Doolittle is in the final year of his contract. Scherzer has one more year on his seven-year, $210 million deal which has evolved into a bargain framed by staggering figures.

Doolittle will be 34 years old on Sept. 26. Scherzer turns 36 years old on July 27th. Their statesmen positions in the game are likely to last beyond their playing careers. Doolittle will walk into a flood of post-career media offers. Scherzer’s future could include being the executive director of the MLBPA. He is the necessary blend of informed, passionate, and obstinate.

Both are voices to be heard in this climate. They understand the landscape in front of and behind them. Managing messages within the union and out in the public eye are divergent projects which simultaneously influence each other. Being the elders -- the viejos -- on the team brings a specific responsibility separate from overall union business. They need to be the house protectors then.

And know they are working in conjunction. An avenue over here for one, an avenue over there for another, making two of the most prominent local voices two of the most powerful across the sport.

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Changes still happening midway through Nationals ‘Summer Camp’

Changes still happening midway through Nationals ‘Summer Camp’

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals are shifting to night-time work to replicate what may be coming in just more than a week. Opening Day is creeping, the league is still dealing with stumbling blocks and the defending World Series champions are short key players.

Everyone in the league has dealt with a coronavirus-related setback since “Summer Camp” began July 3. Testing results lagged. Asymptomatic players have tested positive. Large groups -- like the swath of Nationals players from Latin America and the entire Astros pitching staff -- have needed to enter quarantine. Those setbacks can be worked around during practices. Massive problems will exist if they occur in the middle of the season.

A variety of small things are being dealt with while the larger issues are managed. Players are testing masks in the field. They are adjusting to not having protein bars around, not spitting, carrying around their own bag of baseballs. These items are small, and tedious, and resonate as less-than-minor problems in the middle of a pandemic. But, they are part of the new baseball process.
 
“Um … I think it’s terrible,” first baseman Eric Thames said of the day-to-day with the new protocols. “Not so much the practices, but just, like, the rules we have to follow. We can’t eat protein bars on the bench. We can’t celebrate with our teammates. Even on a ground ball, usually you throw the ball around the infield, but you can’t have more than two guys touch a ball.

“So rules like that are annoying. But you have to do it to keep everybody safe and be able to play in a few weeks.”

One celebration in play: the helmet tap. Jake Noll executed it over the weekend after hitting a home run. He and his teammate botched it at first, almost appearing to have forgotten that was the new plan, before clanging the top of their helmets together with extended arms.

Ghost around-the-horn sessions are in play, too. Following a strikeout, the entire infield goes through the process while the catcher throws the ball lightly back to the pitcher. If the ball is coming out of play -- which is often -- the infield will execute a real around-the-horn session.

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Pitchers are coming into their regular entrance music: ‘Seven Nation Army’ for Stephen Strasburg, ‘Still D.R.E’ for Max Scherzer, the profanity-laced, heavily-edited ‘Who am I’ for Javy Guerra. Music is briefly played between innings. A giant clock is all the scoreboard shows.

What is much harder to track remains significantly more problematic. When players go home, the expectation is they will remain there. They are part of the honor system. The outcome of the season may be dependent on how well they participate.

“None of us want to get it,” Stephen Strasburg said. “Naturally, we want to avoid large crowds and being in situations that might get us exposed to it. I’m sure if you ask a lot of guys around here, when it’s the middle of the season, it’s like clockwork. You go home when you’re done, and you come back the next day. It’s not like you’re spending a lot of time doing things out around town.

“It’s a crazy time right now, and if we can go out there, provide some relief for the fans, something fun for them to watch on TV, that’s the big purpose here.”

More than a week of workouts are over. Just more than a week remains before games begin to count in this 60-game experiment. Fits and starts seem inevitable throughout the season. New ways to celebrate are coming into place, old ways to act are being pushed out. And whether it can all be held together for months remains in doubt.

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Nationals’ Plan A is for their starters to be ramped up by Opening Day

Nationals’ Plan A is for their starters to be ramped up by Opening Day

After overcoming a 19-31 start to last season, the Nationals have fielded questions all offseason asking how they plan to get off to a good start in order to avoid needing another midseason turnaround. Though there is likely no singular answer to those questions, there is one aspect of their roster that could give them an advantage in the first few weeks of the season.

As a franchise that’s been repeatedly self-described by general manager Mike Rizzo as a “pitching-first organization,” the Nationals’ success in 2020 will largely hinge on the health and effectiveness of their starting rotation. For some teams, such a reliance on starters could spell trouble when pitchers only have a few weeks of training camp to get ready for Opening Day.

But Nationals manager Davey Martinez put together a training program in March for his starting pitchers to follow at home while the season was on hold. Now, with just 11 days to go before the Nationals open the season against the New York Yankees on June 23, Martinez is pleased with how far along his starters are in their process of building up their arms for the start of the 60-game campaign.

“I’m very encouraged that they followed what we put together for them during the off time,” Martinez said Sunday. “They came in prepared to go and they came in in good shape and it makes things a lot easier when nobody put on 15, 20 pounds. They were all in good shape so they’ve looked good so far.”

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The Nationals’ rotation is already approaching pitch counts it wouldn’t normally see until midway through spring training. Max Scherzer threw 48 pitches in his first sim game last week. Stephen Strasburg tossed 52 on Friday while Patrick Corbin pushed his pitch count up to 43 on Saturday in his first taste of facing live hitters. Even Aníbal Sánchez, the oldest of them all, has already had two outings with over 60 pitches since returning to Nationals Park.

If their top four arms are all prepared to throw 100+ pitches by the start of the season, the Nationals would be in a much better spot than other teams that are bracing for an uptick in bullpen usage while their pitchers use their first few starts to get back up to full strength.

In a normal year, most starters don’t even typically reach an average of 100 pitches per start. Only 10 qualified starters did it last season and three played for Washington: Scherzer (102.6), Strasburg (102.5) and Corbin (100). That advantage was already important in a 162-game season. When applied to a 60-game slate, it becomes all the more vital.

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“Just [trying] to continue to try and build up and ramp this up as best we can and obviously things are different for everybody so we’re just trying to make sure we’re ready to go once the games that count start,” Corbin said Sunday.

While Martinez doesn’t rule out the idea of pulling pitchers earlier than they might like early on, he also said that such a task is easier said than done when dealing with the personalities of some of his top arms.

“We’re going to have to see where these guys end up at the end of camp,” Martinez said. “I know 60 games ain’t 162 games but…our guys, they’re very intense. It’s going to be hard to take Max out of a game after the fifth inning when he’s doing well but there might have to come a time where we have to do that just for longevity. But these guys, for me, if they keep doing what they’re doing, they’re going to be ready to go out the chute.”

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