It was mid-July of a 2018 season that was getting away from the Nationals.
In an 8-5 loss to the Braves, right-hander Stephen Strasburg and teammate Max Scherzer got into a verbal back-and-forth after the San Diego State product was lifted following a rough start. The camera caught the two in heated discussion - presumably about Strasburg’s outing - before they quickly left the dugout and headed down the stairs to the home clubhouse.
Following that loss, the Nats fell 6 1/2 games in back of first place in the National League East at 48-49. They were coming off a 2017 division title.
Manager Davey Martinez held a closed-door meeting with the pair after that loss, and said everything was good postgame.
Fast forward to 2019 and a World Series championship in which Stephen Strasburg earned the MVP honor with two victories in the seven-game thriller. The free agent Strasburg then decided to return to the Nats for seven seasons and a blockbuster contract worth $245 million. The veteran right-hander spoke at the recent deal announcement about his relationship with teammate Scherzer.
“Maxie coming in here with all the awards and hardware, you know, it was a little eye-opening for me, for sure,” Strasburg said at the recent news conference. “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.”
“He said we’re different,” Scherzer said, referring to Strasburg’s comments. “Yeah, we’re different, but at the same time, we’re also pretty similar in the way we go out there and compete on the mound. We’re there to win and we’re willing to go out there and compete at the highest level possible, whatever it takes to be able to win.”
Outfielder Gerardo Parra’s bear hugs of Strasburg became a big media snapshot moment during the Nats’ run, showing Strasburg smiling and appearing to enjoy his starts more than he has in the past.
“(Strasburg has) continued to make strides and only get better,” Scherzer said. “With Corbin and Sánchez, those guys really brought a nice flair to our clubhouse, and they really brought Stras out. Scott (Boras, Strasburg’s agent) mentioned his dancing got better. It was on display in the clubhouse pretty strong.”
2018’s apparent confrontation was probably more an example of the frustrations of a rough season, injuries that Strasburg had to battle through and pitching inconsistencies than of the two pitchers having a personal conflict.
These two competitors go about their craft and their strategies differently, but both come out of it with an end result that lifts the Nationals pitching staff to a level very few teams can reach.
Strasburg said Scherzer’s aggressiveness on the mound has always been something he has admired and appreciated.
“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,’” Strasburg said. “But as long as I’m aggressive, that’s something that’s important to me.”
In 2019, it all came together for Scherzer and Strasburg, playing off each other, lifting up the other when one was down, leading to the franchise’s first World Series title.
Strasburg signed the record seven-year deal to stay with the Nats for what is likely the remainder of his storied career. Sitting in the front row at the press conference that officially announced the deal last week was Scherzer, supporting his teammate.
Scherzer said he saw a mature and determined Strasburg make that final step in 2019 for the championship run.
Strasburg’s Game 6 start was a huge difference-maker for the Nats following Scherzer’s scratch from Game 5. As Scherzer battled through various ailments and injury setbacks during the season, the 35-year-old respected Strasburg’s strength and resiliency in his 33 starts, the most Strasburg had made since 2014.
“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 that he was healthy,” Scherzer said. “He made all his starts, pitched over 200 innings and I feel like that’s the reason he peaked at the end, that he continued to build off his season from not only spring training to the middle of the season.
“He never had a (injured list) stint where he got set back for any one reason, and that’s why he continued to grow and get a feel for all his pitches and just dominate in the postseason. To me, that was the biggest thing for him, watching him, because his stuff is his stuff. What he can do with the baseball, he can absolutely wipe out teams. So, for 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 on the field.”
Strasburg appreciates Scherzer’s aggressiveness. What can Scherzer learn from Strasburg? Scherzer says the way Strasburg takes care of his body after starts has helped him.
“I’ve learned from him in just the way he prepares and how he’s taking care of his body,” Scherzer said. “He’s a great resource into thinking about how to take care of his arm. He’s had to deal with different injuries, and so definitely over this past season, I (would) lean on him (with), ‘Hey this is what’s going on in the training room.’ Just another set of eyes. At the end of day, we have to make our decisions on what’s going in the medical staff and how we’re going about it because we have to communicate how our arms feel. And so that relationship with the trainers is very important, knowing what they’re trying to accomplish. He was a great resource in that.”
And the bottom line for Scherzer, regardless of personality matches: The Nationals have one of the most formidable rotations in the league, beginning with him and Strasburg.
“There’s more to being a pitcher off the field,” Scherzer said. “It takes everything. Just the way we’re different and yet we go about the business in a little different ways, but at the same time, it works. It works for both of us. And it works the way he does it.
“This organization, we all support each other. For Stras to come back, for the ownership to get it done, this is what you want to be a part of. You want to play with great pitchers, you want to pitch with great pitchers. He’s obviously one of them. And so it’s such a big moment for the organization. I hope I keep coming back here for other ... things as well.”
Scherzer has pitched in the big leagues for 12 seasons. He knows he is a different pitcher than when he was with the Diamondbacks or even the Tigers. And he believes Strasburg can get even better for the Nationals, even as his new contract takes him into his late thirties.
“For him, when you talk about where he is at for his age and service time and everything, it is the sweet spot of his career where he can continue to get better,” Scherzer said. “I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Stras yet. I still think it’s in front of him.”