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Ugly incident speaks to Nats' organization-wide problem

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Ugly incident speaks to Nats' organization-wide problem

Had Sunday afternoon’s dugout fracas at Nationals Park been a purely isolated incident, it might be easy to shrug it off as one of those unfortunate things that happens every once in awhile in sports. Teammates get into a heated argument, one goes after the other, everybody else rushes in to break it up. This certainly wasn’t the first time that scene has played out, whether in public or private view.

Trouble is, this wasn’t isolated. In hindsight, it kind of feels like it had been brewing for awhile. And worse, the manner in which it was handled — both at that moment and then throughout the rest of the evening — spoke to an even larger problem: The Nationals as an organization are out of touch with reality.

Everyone’s at fault here. Of course it begins with Jonathan Papelbon, who was completely out of bounds in confronting Bryce Harper about a perceived lack of hustle and then in physically attacking his teammate. But it also extends to the Nationals’ clubhouse as a whole lacking in a leader, someone who already would have set a tone for how things should be done.

And then it moves on to Matt Williams, who clearly has to know he’s fighting for his job at this point yet has failed through both his words and actions to display the kind of leadership qualities that would give the front office valid reason to retain him.

But it doesn’t stop there. Keep climbing up the ladder to Mike Rizzo, who made the trade for Papelbon despite obvious red flags that gave just about every outside observer reason to question the deal, and who has too often prioritized individual talent over roster cohesion while building his ballclub.

And then take that final step up to the top, to an ownership group that despite learning many things in its near-decade at the helm still comes across as tone-deaf in matters of both major and minor significance.

Maybe the best word to describe it all is this: Arrogance.

The Nationals have accomplished great things over the last four years. Say what you want about the disappointment of missing the playoffs in both 2013 and 2015, but what qualifies as disappointment around here is 83-to-86 wins. That’s markedly better than any of the franchise’s first six seasons in the District, when the mere notion of a winning record was cause for celebration.

Yet this organization, from top to bottom, too often acts like it has accomplished far more than it really has. The Nationals fly the largest division championship banner in baseball, high above the scoreboard in right-center field. (The 2012 NL East champions banner still resided up there throughout the 2014 season, long after they had ceded the title to the Braves.) They boast no fewer than three highly visible reminders to the world that they’ll be hosting the 2018 All-Star Game, an event that won’t take place for another 34 months. They spent the entire first half of this season playing intentionally annoying slow-jams over the PA system when the opposing team took batting practice, for no reason other than to thumb their noses at the rest of the league. They continue to show replay after replay after replay of Jayson Werth’s walk-off homer in Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS — an admittedly wonderful baseball moment — while completely ignoring what happened only 24 hours later to render that moment a mere footnote.

Rizzo has a sterling track record as a front-office exec, and he single-handedly is responsible more than anybody else for turning a 100-loss joke of an organization into one of baseball’s most-competitive franchises. But he also has let ego get in the way of sound baseball decisions at times, whether in trading away Jerry Blevins for taking the club to arbitration over a $200,000 difference in salaries, in assuming a roster of productive-but-oft-injured veterans would somehow be able to stay in one piece all season or in ignoring the domino effects of acquiring big-name players who would bump popular rank-and-file guys from their roles. Yes, the additions of Max Scherzer, Rafael Soriano, Edwin Jackson and Papelbon made the Nationals’ roster stronger, but what ended up happening to Tanner Roark, John Lannan and Drew Storen (twice) as a result? What message did any of those moves send to the rest of the clubhouse?

Williams, meanwhile, has attempted to maintain a veneer of steadiness throughout his tenure as manager. He refuses to look back, look ahead or put any situation into a larger context. But it’s impossible to do that in reality. Every individual situation fits somehow into the bigger picture. What happened last night does impact what happens tonight and tomorrow. Some wins are bigger than others. Some losses most definitely are worse than others. And a manager has to be able to convey that, to recognize that sometimes you bring in your “eighth-inning guy” to pitch the seventh, that it’s OK (actually, it’s necessary) to acknowledge when you’ve been eliminated from the pennant race and admit how disappointing that is to you.

And above all else, a manager has to understand that when your closer physically attacks a teammate in the dugout, he simply can’t be allowed to take the mound again the next half-inning. No matter the score. No matter how many games back you are. No matter how much of the incident you actually saw with your own eyes or not. If Williams truly didn’t see the full extent of Sunday’s incident, he has no excuse for not getting a full and immediate report from one of his coaches (several were right in the thick of it, separating Papelbon and Harper).

If these last few weeks served as an opportunity for Williams to prove himself worthy of the job, to prove himself the kind of leader Rizzo has believed for more than a decade he would be, he hasn’t come close to making the most of it.

As for Papelbon … well, the short-term answer should be simple. He needs to drop his appeal of his 3-game, MLB-imposed suspension for intentionally throwing at Manny Machado’s head. Now. And then he needs to not appear in any of the Nationals’ four other remaining games this season.

The long-term answer isn’t nearly as simple. The Nationals already were facing a major bullpen overhaul this winter before this incident. Now they have no choice but to consider dumping Papelbon, who is under contract for 2016 and owed $11 million. Trouble is, he still has the same no-trade clause that made it difficult for the Phillies to deal him in the first place. His value obviously has diminished. And $11 million is a whole lotta money to flush down the toilet.

Yet how do the Nationals move forward with Papelbon as part of the equation? Can they really expect to make another run in 2016 with him holding a prominent position, carrying this kind of baggage?

Here may lie the ultimate test of the organization’s aforementioned arrogance. Can Rizzo, Ted Lerner and Co. admit the colossal mistake they made this summer, no matter how much it stings their pride and their bank account?

If so, perhaps it will serve as the first evidence of a franchise truly committed to changing how it operates. No more arrogance. No more bragging. No more inviting derision from the rest of the baseball world.

It’s time for the Nationals to admit they have not accomplished great things yet. They’ve taken plenty of big steps over the last decade. But they haven’t taken the final step. And until they do, they’re just another franchise trying to join the big boys’ club, required to show some much-needed humility for once.

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Max Scherzer reaches 300 season strikeout mark in Nationals win over Marlins

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USA Today

Max Scherzer reaches 300 season strikeout mark in Nationals win over Marlins

With a bottle of bubbly at his feet and a baseball with the inscription "300 Ks" in a case in his locker, Max Scherzer allowed himself a moment to consider what he'd just accomplished.

"It was something I dreamed of, reaching this mark," Scherzer said, "because I know how hard it is to consistently go out there and strike guys out."

Scherzer became the 17th pitcher since 1900 to strike out 300 batters in a season, reaching that milestone by fanning 10 in seven innings Tuesday night during the Washington Nationals' otherwise meaningless 9-4 victory over the Miami Marlins.

"A big number," Nationals catcher Matt Wieters said, "when you're talking about strikeouts."

Scherzer (18-7) lowered his ERA to 2.53 by allowing one run in seven innings as he bids for a third consecutive NL Cy Young Award; he also won the 2013 honor in the AL for Detroit. He threw 70 of his 100 pitches for strikes, gave up five hits and didn't walk a batter.

The righty reached 300 by getting Austin Dean to whiff on an 85-mph slider at the end of a 10-pitch at-bat for the second out of the seventh. Scherzer pumped his fist while much of the announced crowd of 26,483 -- including his wife, Erica May-Scherzer -- joined players in the home dugout and home bullpen by saluting the ace with a standing ovation.

"I definitely wanted to do it here at home," said the 34-year-old Scherzer, who is currently slated to make one more start, in Sunday's season finale at Colorado. "The fans -- unbelievable support."

They would chant, "Let's go, Max!" They would rise and cheer when he had two strikes on a hitter. They would emit a collective "Awwwwwww" when a pitch near the plate was ruled a ball -- or even when a pitch resulted in any sort of out that wouldn't add to his strikeout total.

Sweating profusely on a muggy, 78-degree evening, Scherzer had all of his repertoire working, from the 97-mph fastballs he threw past Lewis Brinson for strikeouts in the fourth and seventh innings, to the 84-mph changeup that JT Riddle missed for a K leading off the game.

As is Scherzer's wont, he stalked around the grass after strikeouts.

Asked whether he considered pulling his famously intense pitcher before No. 300, Nationals manager Dave Martinez laughed.

"I value my life," Martinez joked. "He was going to get 10 today, somehow."

Scherzer now has 10 strikeouts or more in a majors-high 18 of his 33 starts in 2018, and 82 such games for his career.

He got Dean by throwing fastball after fastball with a full count, then getting him to chase a slider.

"That's probably where you can see Max has become a more complete pitcher than he was earlier in his career," Wieters said, "where he was able to go with the slider and execute it and realize that with where that fastball was starting, (Dean is) going to be way out in front of it."

Dean's take?

"He's the best pitcher in baseball," the Marlins rookie said.

The case certainly can be made. This is, after all, a guy with two no-hitters and a 20-strikeout game on his resume, along with the Cy Youngs.

Scherzer entered Tuesday ranked No. 1 in the NL in eight significant statistical categories, including strikeouts, strikeouts-to-walks ratio (5.69), opponents' batting average (.188) and innings pitched (213 2/3). He was also tied for No. 1 in two others: wins and quality starts (27).

The expectation is that Scherzer and New York Mets starter Jacob deGrom are the main Cy Young contenders in the NL. DeGrom is 9-9 with a 1.77 ERA and single-season records of 23 consecutive quality starts and 28 starts in a row allowing three or fewer earned runs.

"There's more to pitching than just striking guys out," Scherzer said, "but also, it is a big reason why you can have success."

RENDON AND HARPER

Nationals 3B Anthony Rendon hit a three-run shot in the first inning off Jeff Brigham (0-4), increasing his season totals to 24 homers and 90 RBIs and extending his streak of reaching base to 33 straight games. Rendon added an RBI double in the seventh, when Washington batted around and tacked on six runs. ... Bryce Harper scored twice to surpass 100 runs for the season; he already had a career-best 100 RBIs and more than 100 walks. Harper can become a free agent in the offseason, so Wednesday's series finale could be the 2015 NL MVP's last home game at Nationals Park.

UP NEXT

The Nationals will give 26-year-old RHP Kyle McGowin his first start in the majors Wednesday. Miami will start LHP Wei-Yin Chen (6-11, 4.66 ERA).

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Max Scherzer reaches 300 strikeouts for the season

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USA Today

Max Scherzer reaches 300 strikeouts for the season

Nationals right-hander Max Scherzer has become the 17th major league pitcher since 1900 to strike out at least 300 batters in a season.

Scherzer reached the milestone by getting Austin Dean of the Miami Marlins to whiff on an 85 mph slider for the second out of the seventh inning Tuesday night. That was Scherzer's 10th K of the game.

He has 10 strikeouts or more in a majors-high 18 of his 33 starts in 2018.

Scherzer entered Tuesday 17-7 with a and 2.57 ERA as he tries to earn a third consecutive NL Cy Young Award with Washington. He also won the AL honor in 2013 for the Detroit Tigers.

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