The last 24 hours for the Nationals have been hectic, to say the least. But they are just the latest episodes in what has been a chaotic and unprecedented start to the second half for the fading ballclub.
With a COVID-19 outbreak, trade rumors swirling, bad weather approaching and a doubleheader to play, what message did manager Davey Martinez deliver to his players this morning as they arrived at Citizens Bank Park, still unsure what the roster would look like or if they were even going to play?
“The message is clear. ... We gotta stay focused on the here and now. Be where your feet are,” Martinez said during his pregame Zoom session with reporters.
That’s exactly what they were able to do in a 3-1 win over the Phillies in the first game of today’s doubleheader in Philadelphia.
Max Scherzer, making his 197th (including the postseason) and presumably last start in a Nationals uniform, led the way as he has done throughout his seven seasons in Washington. Even with all of the uncertainty.
“I asked (general manager Mike Rizzo) last night, ‘Am I pitching?’ and he said, ‘Yes,’ so I said I wanted to pitch the first game and let’s go,” Scherzer said after the game when asked if starting today was always the plan. “That’s all I can do, for me, is just go out there, last night get my rest and prepare for a start at noon. That’s it.”
Relying on his ability to use multiple pitches, Scherzer completed six innings of one-run ball with three hits, three walks, five strikeouts, a home run and a hit batter on 88 pitches, including 56 strikes. In typical fashion, he was also able to ignore all of the possible distractions to get the job done.
“This is new to me,” Scherzer said. “I’ve only been traded in the offseason. I’ve never had to deal with this during the season. So for me, just put the blinders up, go out there, pitch, compete and have fun with your teammates. That’s all I can do.”
It could be a fitting end to his Nationals career for Scherzer, who was seen giving hugs and high fives to his coaches and teammates in the dugout after the sixth inning. If this is it for him, his final totals over nearly seven seasons with the Nationals could be a 92-47 record with a 2.80 ERA, 0.962 WHIP and 1,610 strikeouts in 1,229 innings over 188 starts.
The only blemish on his line today was a solo home run by J.T. Realmuto leading off the bottom of the fourth inning that just barely stayed fair and cleared the fence. Realmuto is now just 5-for-49 with two home runs against Scherzer.
Scherzer was made the pitcher of record thanks to Yan Gomes’ two-run home run in the top of the seventh inning. The go-ahead swing was set up by Gerardo Parra’s leadoff double, which was assisted by some overaggressive defense by Phillies center fielder Odúbel Herrera. Gomes, making his return off the 10-day injured list, finished the day with two-hit, two-RBI day.
“For him to just pop back out, doesn’t even go on a rehab assignment, just, ‘Hey, we’re gonna go in and face Zack Wheeler,’ ” Scherzer said of Gomes. “And sure enough, he hits a two-run shot, something that I love. I always joke with the guys that solo shots don’t beat you, and sure enough, he hits a two-run shot to win the game. That’s the stuff that I love, you know, joke around with the guys. And today it actually came true. And that’s the fun stuff, throwing to Yan and watching him go out there and win a ballgame like that with his bat. And he did a great job behind the plate, too. How he wanted to pitch and sequence, it was a fun day today.”
Scherzer also took some time to reflect on the relationship he’s cultivated with his batterymate over the past couple of years.
“He’s been a friend of mine over these years that he’s been here. He’s been a great teammate for me and a great catcher,” said Scherzer.
Kyle Finnegan earned his first big league save with a perfect ninth inning on 12 pitches to send Scherzer out with a victory. Finnegan was forced into the closer’s role after Brad Hand was traded to the Blue Jays for catching prospect Riley Adams in the first inning.
The Nats jumped out to an early lead in the second when Josh Harrison led off the frame with a double to deep center field then advanced to third on a Luis García groundout and scored on Parra’s sacrifice fly to left field. Henry Blanco, replacing Bob Henley as the third base coach today, gave Harrison the go sign on a not-so-deep fly ball that worked out well in the end.
Wheeler was strong on the mound for the Phillies as well, but the Nationals did have their opportunities to score. They had baserunners in each inning except the fourth and fifth against the right-hander. But they went 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position and left four runners on base over the first six innings while also grounding into their league-leading 92nd and 93rd double plays, both by Josh Bell, who would have grounded into a third if not for a dropped exchange by Jean Segura at second base.
Regardless of what the next 26 hours hold for Scherzer and the Nationals, they can hold their heads up high that they came out victorious amid so much adversity in this first game.
“I don’t know. I put it on the line every single time,” Scherzer said on how he’ll look back at this start. “I’ll give you everything I’ve got, no matter what the situation is. Like I said, today was a wacky start with all of the hoopla and everything going around. But just put your head down, put the blinders up, go out there and compete. You do it for each other. Love watching Parra get the hit and Yan hit the home run. So it’s the relationships that you make and how you go about it and how you play the game.
“Even when you’re at the worst, when you have COVID, when you have the trades, all of this stuff going down, how are you when the worst situations are in front of you? How do you perform? You want to go out there and do your best. I think that’s something, I hope, that everybody appreciates and my teammates as well. When we’re dealing with all of this, my teammates as well have responded extremely well of going out there and competing and playing as a team despite all of the stuff that’s going on around us. So that’s what I remember.”
And if this is the last time we see Scherzer rock a curly W hat, the Nationals and their fans will have this vintage Mad Max start as the final chapter of book full of fantastic memories from a Hall of Fame career in D.C.
“For me, this is where my family started,” Scherzer said of his time in Washington. “Came here without kids, now I’ve got three kids. I watched my girls grow up here. Living here in Virginia, in the DMV area, getting used to it and all the politics that are going around, being in the nation’s capital. That’s fun as well. Driving by all of the monuments every single day. It’s been a very fun experience for me being in D.C. And the fans. What can you say about the fans? That’s where that championship will always mean something to all of us. We’ll always have that and we’ll always have that flag.”