WASHINGTON -- After his daughters were finally allowed to wriggle free from their front-row seats, when the hugs for daddy were done, Stephen Strasburg reached to clasp his $245 million right arm with a $210 million right arm. His grip on Max Scherzer’s hand pulled in his teammate for a hug, thanks and a smile.
Tuesday’s jovial feting of Strasburg returning to the Nationals featured standard ditties for such an event: Agent Scott Boras used well-timed pauses to punctuate his stories. Mike Rizzo touted culture and quality. Family sat in one span of reserved front row seats; ownership populated the other.
Scherzer was the lone teammate there. He lives nearby and is part of the reason Strasburg has signed two contracts to remain in Washington. The first was an against-the-current extension in 2016 the year after Scherzer blew into town filled with legacy, hardware and a burning competitive soul. Strasburg’s comfort with himself and Washington was growing then. To have Scherzer in the clubhouse made Strasburg’s extension decision easier. Strasburg was not the franchise weight-bearer, he was not the highest-paid, he did have an excellent chance to win when paired with Scherzer. Strasburg was allowed to work, which is all he wants to do anyway, with limited disruption. So, he signed.
Like any co-workers, the pair went through a get-to-know-you process. They bonded over fantasy football, which trickles through the clubhouse as a cutthroat, well-financed distraction. They argued when body language was bad. Everyone remembers their mid-game dugout blowup in 2018 which received the typical explainer: these things happen, you just don’t normally see them in public. That’s true. In part. They happen, but when they happen between one player in the game and one player not, with said players the 1-2 in the rotation, it’s different. Davey Martinez summoned them to his office to talk it out. They did, then moved on.
“Those things are going to happen when you're around each other for eight, nine months out of the year,” Martinez said at the Winter Meetings. “What I saw after Game 6 and the game was over, was Scherzer jumping up and down and giving Stras a huge hug and telling him how proud he was of him. He's just awesome. That was really nice to see.”
Strasburg didn’t know what to make of Scherzer when he arrived. Scherzer is a boisterous whirlwind. He talks -- a lot -- and performs. His pitching legacy revolves as much around persona as stuff. Everything from the two different colored eyes to mound stalking to on-flight trash-talking takes time to become accustomed to.
“Maxie coming in here with all the awards and hardware, you know, it was a little eye-opening for me, for sure,” Strasburg said. “I think, he could say this, too, I think our personalities are very different. I’m very quiet. But, I mean, he goes out there and he is fearless. I think there are certain times where I have a tendency, not shy away from things or shy away from certain hitters, but that aggressiveness that I’ve watched over these years, that was something like, hey, I don’t really care what happens. But as long as I’m aggressive, that’s something that’s important to me.”
Strasburg’s point about their divergent personalities registered with Scherzer. He agreed, though suggested there is more common ground than may be perceived. Scherzer runs through stadiums and streets and absorbs charts, desperate for an edge. Strasburg trudges through the clubhouse shirtless and soaked from his time in the hot tub, an odd visual reminding everyone of his off-mound workload. A change in routine and the ambition to stick to it pushed Strasburg to the National League lead in innings pitched last season. It also caught Scherzer’s attention.
“That was the biggest thing why I thought he had such an unbelievable year this year was the work he was doing off the field to make sure he was healthy,” Scherzer said. “He made all of his starts, pitched over 200 innings. I feel like that’s the reason why he peaked at the end. He continued to build off his season, not only from spring training but through the middle of the season, he never had an [IL] stint where he got setback for any one reason."
“That’s why he continued to grow and get a feel for all of his pitches and just dominate in the postseason. That was the biggest thing for me and watching him because his stuff is his stuff and what he can do with the baseball, he can absolutely wipe out teams. So, what he was able to do last year, so much of it was off the field and that off-the-field hard work translated to the field.”
They are together for two more seasons. Maybe longer. Scherzer can become a free agent in 2020, which would be his age-37 season. When asked at the All-Star Game Media Day if he thought about a contract extension, he provided a gruff response, pointing out he was focused on getting into the playoffs and winning, contract be damned. However, there is a model, which rests with his former teammate and forever contemporary, Justin Verlander. The two-year, $66 million extension Verlander signed with Houston appears a viable idea for Scherzer’s future. Tacking on two years would keep him with Strasburg and Patrick Corbin for four more years.
In the interim, Strasburg and Scherzer will head what is arguably the game’s best starting rotation. They’ve grown with each other via competition and preparation. Five years together led to Tuesday’s handshake and hug, with dugout arguments long forgotten and a singular goal the uniting factor.
“He said, we’re different, yeah, we’re different,” Scherzer said. “But at the same time, we’re also similar in the way we go out there and compete on the mound. We’re there to win. We’re willing to go out there and compete at the highest level possible to do whatever it takes to win."
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