PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — When historians chronicle this Washington Nationals season, years or decades or generations hence, they will almost certainly write a chapter about the events of March 27, 2017, when two decorated gladiators clashed in the Nationals’ 6-0 win. First Data Field served as a modern-day Colosseum, half-full for the showdown between a Cy Young Award winner and a Heisman Trophy winner, one of those rare duels with the power to captivate the masses in these troubled times. Under the white puffy clouds of South Florida spring, Max Scherzer faced Tim Tebow Monday. Neither man will be the same … or something like that.
Their first bout did not last long. Scherzer, excited for the opportunity to face the former NFL quarterback, found as much adrenaline as he has all spring and his velocity showed it. Tebow, who has not faced many pitchers like Scherzer in his professional career, decided he should swing early, lest he find himself in a two-strike count he might not survive. So the Cy Young winner reared, and the Heisman winner readied. The righty fired. Ninety-six miles per hour. The muscular lefty swung, a few miles per hour too late. Strike one.
Scherzer challenged him again, a few seconds later, this time at 97. Tebow watched strike two, then braced for one last chance. Scherzer did not give him one, winding and launching a 97-mph fastball up in the zone. Tebow swung through and was vanquished.
“You got the whole stadium standing and cheering for that. That’s always going to fire you up,” Scherzer said. “You always want to get him out.”
The men regrouped over the next hour or so. Tebow conserved energy during a relatively uneventful stint in left field. Scherzer had not given up a hit by the time he again faced Tebow in the fifth. Round 2 lasted a few seconds longer than the first. Scherzer even threw a cutter once.
“That’s a tough one up against a Cy Young like that,” Bryce Harper said. “[Tebow is] trying to do whatever you can to get better every single day, and he’s putting in the right work. So I wish him the best.”
Ultimately, he struck out Tebow on four pitches this time, the last of which was once again 96 mph. Perhaps exhausted by the effort, perhaps entirely unaffected by it, Scherzer allowed his first hit of the afternoon to the next batter he faced and his second two batters later. He escaped the fifth with 85 pitches, 51 strikes, two hits and seven strikeouts — the victor in what will undoubtedly be remembered as a matchup for the ages. Or at least the best Grapefruit League matchup Monday.
“[Scherzer] made quality pitches when he needed. He reached back,” Baker said. ” … Then he reached back big-time against Tebow.”
Some venerable Twitter philosophers scoffed at the matchup, denouncing any attention given to a lopsided at-bat between one of baseball’s best pitchers and a man destined for Low-A ball a few weeks from now.
Sure, one could claim that Scherzer felt fine physically and is still on track to be ready for week one might matter more in the end. Yes, one could argue that the swings Trea Turner and Bryce Harper took as each knocked two homers Monday were more important than the ones Tebow took. And of course, one could look at Enny Romero, who threw two scoreless innings and is emerging as a high-ceiling component of this Nationals bullpen, and see a more important takeaway. Even Koda Glover’s game-ending strikeout of Tebow could be considered more important than Scherzer’s victories, because it concluded a scoreless 1 1/3 innings in which the closing candidate looked unfazed by the struggles of his last outing. Some people in the industry and around the Nationals might consider those things more important than what happens when a guy who has thrown two no-hitters faces a 29-year-old who has never made a big league appearance.
But all those people are ignoring the magic of the moment, their imagination consumed by the kind of rational thinking that suggests spring training statistics don’t matter or that a former NFL player might not be the best measure of an all-star ace’s regular season readiness. Clearly, those people are missing the point.
What could matter more to a contender like the Nationals than whether their most decorated starting pitcher can strike out one of the most decorated college football players in recent memory? After all, the crowd never cheered louder Monday than when Tebow stepped to the plate. Scherzer emerged victorious, as did the Nationals, on a day everyone present will remember forever — or at least for a couple hours or so.
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