One by one, players in half-buttoned jerseys, hair matted with sweat, ambled into the clubhouse from somewhere in the back near the training room. Their manager had not been in there with them. The players called the meeting. The veterans rounded everyone up. No one was willing to say exactly what happened or who said what, but the overarching message was clear.
“Let’s get this thing going,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “I think we all know that we are capable of playing better baseball, and it’s time we do it. It’s do or die now.”
The meeting came after the Nationals were swept again, this time by the Boston Red Sox, who have swept more than a few teams on their way to the best record in the majors. The meeting was not inspired by this series alone. Washington has lost 18 of its past 24 games and remains seven games behind first-place Atlanta in the National League East following the Braves’ second straight loss to the New York Yankees.
“We were a pretty good team in May. Not very good in June, but we’ll get better,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “I know we’re going to get better. We’re going to continue, and we’re going to win a lot of games.”
The Nationals could have won Wednesday’s. Erick Fedde left the 11 a.m. Fourth of July contest in the second inning, hampered by shoulder tightness that sucked his mph velocity into the 80s and brought Martinez to the mound in alarm. By the time the Nationals had that postgame meeting, Fedde already had undergone an MRI exam that he said revealed no structural damage — just a lot of inflammation. “No structural damage” does not always equate to “good news,” but it is certainly not a worst-case scenario either.
Matt Grace relieved him with four scoreless innings that allowed the Nationals to keep the game scoreless until the later innings. But the eventual winning run scored against Ryan Madson in the seventh when left fielder Adam Eaton made a sliding catch in foul territory but couldn’t prevent a run from scoring from third. Another run scored when catcher Pedro Severino could not block a pitch in the dirt. The “little things” Martinez refers to over and over, the little things this team keeps wrestling with as it struggles to find its way, struck again.
And even as another injury struck Wednesday, this team is no longer so injured as to have an excuse for doing the little or big things wrong. Early in the season, when Eaton and Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon and others were hurt, you could excuse a bad stretch or two. Those players have returned. The Nationals got Matt Adams back from the disabled list Wednesday, too, though he did not play. The power-hitting lefty was stranded on deck when Wilmer Difo popped out to end the game as the potential tying run in the ninth.
So ended another futile afternoon for this team, which filed into the clubhouse and into that meeting. No one wants to be the man to break the code, to divulge the secrets of a players-only meeting. But little by little, bits and pieces became clear. No one man called the meeting, at least not officially. A handful of veterans corralled their teammates, who assembled in the back.
The keynote address came from Max Scherzer, which should be no surprise. In a clubhouse full of quiet veterans with a propensity to stay levelheaded, Scherzer is the one man who often channels competitiveness into emotion.
“I think anytime Max holds the meeting or holds court, there’s going to be some yelling,” Eaton said. “. . . In baseball, you don’t have that type of intensity all the time, so it’s a little different. I think guys gravitate toward that. I think everybody has a kind of intensity bone in their body, and sometimes things need to be said in that fashion.”
That the players called this meeting — and held it without their manager or coaches — raises reasonable questions about the clubhouse. Martinez certainly has not lapsed into negativity. He continues to defend his team vehemently. Perhaps the players believed this message had to come from within. With a team this experienced, that has been through so much together, perhaps those are the most poignant.
“We’re going to play free. We’re going to play loose,” Grace said. “And I think we’re going to play for each other until we turn it around.”
Read into those words — “play for each other” — what you will. Read between the lines of “let’s get this thing going” and realize that Turner probably was providing the edited version. And also realize that something happened Wednesday that hasn’t happened yet.
The Nationals, to a man, acknowledged that their season has been unacceptable. To a man, they acknowledged they have never overcome a regular season such as this one before. And to a man, they decided it was time to talk about changing that.
“I think a lot of guys are approaching it as: This is good for us. We needed to take our lumps now and play some meaningful games,” Eaton said. “. . . Hopefully we can scrape and claw and really find out what kind of team we have here.”