Now that the mound meltdowns are (hopefully) over and the jettisoning of players has (for the foreseeable future) ceased, let’s settle into what remains of this Washington Nationals season, whatever it becomes. In the moment, the early part of this week seems as if it must take the lead in the 13-year race to determine the wackiest development in Nats history.
Then Jim Riggleman settles into a chair in the visiting manager’s office and says, “Like I’ve said before: It wasn’t a very smart decision, career-wise,” and you picture him at Caddies that night in 2011, and you remember this team’s tenure in town might be brief, but it sure is bizarre.
And then Max Scherzer takes the mound, and there’s another reminder: Every fifth day, whatever else is going on around here, comes a chance to watch something extraordinary.
Riggleman got the top-step-of-the-dugout seat Thursday night at Nationals Park, where he brought his Cincinnati Reds in for a four-game series that is the latest assessment of how much hope should remain in the Nationals’ season. Scherzer wasn’t his sharpest in a 10-4 victory, which says what you need to know: Six innings in which he allowed two runs on four hits and struck out 10 was not his sharpest. No matter. It was enough.
“I thought Max threw the crap out of it,” said Bryce Harper, who singled, walked twice and hit a has-it-landed-yet homer. “Of course.”
Of course. Now more than halfway through his seven-year, $210 million contract, Scherzer has become the Nats’ beacon, the character through which all the silliness can be cast aside. The Nationals own a Hall of Famer in his prime. It’s a treat to watch him strut, to watch him sweat, to watch him grunt, to watch him work. There’s the visceral: striking out Preston Tucker with the last of his 110 pitches, a punch-out with punctuation. And there’s the statistical: In 23 starts this season, Scherzer has allowed two or fewer earned runs 19 times. It’s just plain fun.
You know what else is fun? We can say this now because the Nationals have won six of eight to calm their choppy waters. But it’s fun to think back after a strange past few days: What, in fact, might be the weirdest and wildest moment in Nationals history?
Let’s be clear about the newest candidate, which is perhaps the most complex. It’s the roughly 60-hour period that includes the club and its shortstop issuing statements addressing and apologizing for Trea Turner’s insensitive tweets; a trade deadline in which Harper became the lead talking point; a defiant declaration from General Manager Mike Rizzo that Harper wouldn’t be going anywhere; a trade of a reliever not as much because of how he pitched but because of what he said and who he said it to; Turner’s tearful in-person addressing of his errant ways; a 25-run outburst against a division rival that concluded when the final pitcher of the night spiked his glove to the turf and glared into the dugout; and then the cutting of that player because, as Rizzo said in a franchise-shaping sound bite, “If you’re not in, you’re in the way.”
Whew. That’s a lot.
And then you remember that Alfonso Soriano was announced as the left fielder in a spring training game in which he had no intention of playing left field. And Jayson Werth tackled Teddy Roosevelt — or, at least, the massive-headed, racing version. And Davey Johnson shared with the greater public that Stephen Strasburg had placed Hot Stuff balm on, well, uh . . . and yeah, he didn’t pitch particularly well because of it.
Ah, the Natinals. Sorry, sorry, they have long since righted themselves to be the Nationals.
The point is, the competition is stiff. Right now, all that happened to open this week seems downright crazy. But that’s recency bias, for sure, because . . .
The television color analyst (Rob Dibble) once called out the then-ace (Strasburg) for being, um, not that virile — and was fired.
The general manager (Jim Bowden) resigned because one of his top assistants (Jose Rijo) was involved in signing a player (Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez) whose age had been forged.
The first television play-by-play man (Mel Proctor) gave out his cellphone number on the air — because he suspected MASN was available in roughly zero households — and asked viewers to call; only a guy in the TV truck complied.
And Nyjer Morgan chucked his glove to the ground after missing a ball that was still live, turning it into an inside-the-park home run. And debris from fireworks shot from the top level of Nationals Park fell not just on fans — but on the D.C. fire chief. And they hired Bud Black to manage the team — until they hired Dusty Baker. And Elijah Dukes led softball cheers from the dugout at Shea Stadium in an effort to rattle the New York Mets — for a team that lost 102 games. (Heck, that Dukes was employed at all.) And Riggleman quit as manager of his hometown team in the middle of the season because that hometown team would not pick up his option for the following year — leading to the hiring of Johnson.
And — ohmygodohmygodohmygod — the closer (Jonathan Papelbon) tried to choke the soon-to-be MVP (Harper) in the dugout!
Sort through those over your cereal, and add whatever sugar and milk you want. (We haven’t even covered the category of Robinson, Frank.) It’s such a fun exercise.
What remains of the Nationals’ 2018 season, though, is serious. And if there are going to be games of consequence to be played in, say, September, then Scherzer is going to be a significant reason.
“We’ve said from Day One this team is as good as anybody in the National League, in baseball,” Scherzer said of his 55-53 squad. “We can compete with everybody. Frankly, we’ve just been playing better baseball. That’s all it is.”
Even before he faced the Reds, Scherzer had kicked and snorted his way back into a race for what would be his third straight Cy Young Award — and fourth overall. Here is the list of pitchers who have won that honor at least three straight times: Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson. Here is the list of pitchers who have won the award at least four times in a career: Roger Clemens (seven times), Johnson (five), Steve Carlton and Maddux (four each).
There’s plenty of baseball left, and Scherzer could start 10 more games. Still, it’s relevant at this point to note his NL ranks in a variety of important categories: second in ERA, first in strikeouts and strikeouts per nine innings, first in innings, first in batting average against, first in walks and hits per inning pitched, first in strikeout-to-walk ratio. Oh, and if you’re still into this kind of stat: first in wins, with 15.
That’s the output. His first-year manager, Davey Martinez, is just now learning what goes into it.
“His competitive nature is not just every five days,” Martinez said Thursday afternoon. “It’s every day.”
Scherzer’s competitive nature and the performances it produces are precisely what this team needs to quiet the noise. So take the din from earlier in the week and consider where it fits in a freaky franchise’s history. But then look to the mound and appreciate the character who rises above all that — and might truly lift this team back into a pennant race.