It felt as if the Washington Nationals’ dam of disillusionment finally broke Friday night. Throughout this happy-go-unlucky season, the ballclub has tried to follow its positive rookie manager, Dave Martinez, and do the Joe Maddon-Chicago Cubs thing. It has been awkward and a little corny, especially in a season marred by underperformance, injuries, quiet second-guessing and frustration mounting behind a chummy facade. All was good — or oddly docile — until Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer started arguing in the dugout.
With one incident, the veil had been snatched and sent flying far, far away. The Nationals are now free to be, well, normal. Given their current situation, it’s okay to be grumpy. In fact, it’s a vital sign of competitiveness. The Nationals are below .500, experiencing issues in several key phases and trailing by 6½ games in a National League East division in which Philadelphia and Atlanta are both young, formidable and hungry. The Nationals need to stop acting as if a comeback is inevitable.
Their season already has reached a critical period even though more than two months remain. As they attempt to transform from a front-running team that has never rallied this late in a season, it’s time to toughen up. If it has to start with getting tough with each other, pass the boxing gloves.
The Strasburg-Scherzer incident is more symbolic than worrisome. It’s evidence that things are bad and the Nationals aren’t numb to it. If a baseball team must have conflict, it’s rather innocuous for the beef to be between two starting pitchers who won’t be on the field together, except under rare circumstances.
The fiery Scherzer is more of a leader and clubhouse presence than most men who take the mound every fifth game, but despite his commitment to the team, willingness to be vocal and credibility as a three-time Cy Young Award winner, his potential for daily impact is limited. And Strasburg is the soft-spoken ace in the corner, a player so invisible the team barely noticed when he disappeared for a day two years ago to take a physical before signing a $175 million contract. Their disagreement seemed like a heat-of-the-moment misunderstanding, not some kind of tension that will rattle the clubhouse for weeks.
“It’s just a part of family, man,” Strasburg said when he was asked to explain the argument during a pouty postgame interview that lasted about 80 seconds. “You got to be in the family.”
Nevertheless, it was enough of a problem that Martinez met with the pitchers for 20 minutes after the game. He also wouldn’t divulge any details about the dispute, but he considered it positive that the quarrel later led to an honest discussion, with Martinez as the moderator.
“This stuff happens. I’ve been on teams where guys wanted to choke each other,” said Martinez, who unknowingly brought back memories of Jonathan Papelbon putting his hands on Bryce Harper in 2015. “It’s a long season. They get it. They understand. We talk about it. I don’t want to lose sleep about it. It was a really good conversation. I’ll just leave it at that. Things are good.”
Martinez came closest to being revealing when he said: “The way I look at it, they want to take ownership. I gather that’s what it was about. They sat there, and there’s two guys that are very competitive, and they got heated, and that was that. Tomorrow, they’ll be hugging, probably, and laughing and joking, and we’ll move on.”
In this case, let’s define ownership as caring enough to police each other. Review the video several times, and it looks to be a classic sports confrontation in which one player (Scherzer) tries to be supportive of another (Strasburg) during a moment of frustration. Strasburg was upset that he couldn’t get out of the fifth inning during his return from the disabled list, and he didn’t want to be encouraged or comforted. Clearly, Scherzer didn’t like the way Strasburg reacted, and then he gestured for the two to leave the dugout and continue the fight in private.
It’s not necessarily a window into the Nationals’ team chemistry. It is something that happened out of the blue, and while their relationship will be scrutinized and the incident will be referenced for some time, it doesn’t have to be the moment the season fell apart. Or if the Nationals get hot, recover and make the playoffs, it doesn’t have to be the moment the team came together. It’s most likely that it was random and nothing else.
But for this team, conflict might not be a bad thing. On Friday night, the artificial start of the season’s second half, the Nationals continued to put on their smiley faces and play the “we, not me” game. The contrast of a team that worked out before the game wearing red jersey shirts with “NATIONALS” written on the back instead of individual players’ names, then succumbed to animosity by night’s end, was too stark to ignore. The Nationals don’t need more team-building exercises. They don’t need to spend more time in their circle of trust. They don’t need more fun to break up the monotony.
To feel better, the Nationals need to play better. They’re a disjointed team because they don’t have enough players healthy and performing to expectations at the same time. They must change quickly, or this season will be lost, and they will enter a crucial offseason — the offseason of Harper’s free agency — with a sour vibe.
The start of the second half didn’t represent the clean break they wanted. Strasburg is back. So is Ryan Zimmerman, though he didn’t start Friday. Still, the Nationals continued their struggles in an 8-5 loss to Atlanta. Washington hit three home runs and played a little small ball, manufacturing its first run with a sacrifice bunt and a double steal in the first inning. But the pitching wasn’t there.
Other times, the Nationals pitch but don’t hit. Overall, they have put together only one long stretch of clean baseball. In May, they went 20-7. It means that, as of Friday night, they had a woeful 28-42 record outside of that one good month. This season may seem an aberration compared to all the success the Nationals have had since 2012. But in the context of 2018, quality baseball has been the anomaly.
“I think everyone understands the situation that we’re in,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve just got to go out and try to win every day.”
They’re in a fight, and they don’t have any experience that shows they can win under these conditions. A few more weeks of uninspiring baseball, and there won’t even be an expectation for recovery. It’s not concerning that the Nationals are grumpy and getting chippy with each other. Actually, it’s about time.
The veil is gone. The clubhouse had a morose vibe after Friday’s defeat. The Nationals can see that they are nearing a breaking point. Things aren’t good, and only acknowledgment and urgent performance can help things get better.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
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