Even when most reporters had bustled off to Bryce Harper’s locker for another interview, Max Scherzer stood at his — not chatting like he might after an interview now and then, but standing. The Washington Nationals ace waited out the final questions, answering them thoroughly and largely without cliche, as if aware that someone had to speak for his team’s fourth one-run loss in its past five games — a 4-3 defeat at the hands of the Boston Red Sox on Monday night at Nationals Park. Maybe, after a fifth straight start in which the Nationals scored two runs or fewer while he was in the game, he just needed to get it all out.
But Scherzer did not yell. He pointed at himself, to the three-run double he allowed his counterpart, Rick Porcello. And he waxed philosophical, as if willing himself or his teammates or the reporters or everyone to remember that nothing good comes of sulking — and that the darkest baseball times never grow brighter for those who refuse to acknowledge a little light here and there. The Nationals, once considered runaway division favorites, are seven games back of the Atlanta Braves in the National League East. They are one game over .500 at 42-41. They have lost 18 of their past 27 games.
“This is where the test is, that even when things aren’t going your way, when things are bleak, when we haven’t been playing great baseball, you have to find a way to take and find certain things you are doing well and just try to build off those,” Scherzer said. “That’s just what the whole team has to do.”
The whole team had plenty to build off Monday night. The Nationals are 8-16 in one-run games and, in several of those instances, they beat themselves. But Monday’s loss qualified as one of those rare instances in which Manager Dave Martinez’s nightly “they played really well” refrain applied. They outhit the Red Sox, 9-7. They put the tying run on base over and over again in the later innings but could not find the big hit. They hit three home runs, none with a single man on base.
“I have nothing to complain about, nothing to say,” Martinez said. “The results weren’t what we wanted, but the attitude, the intensity, the energy was phenomenal today.”
They made one baserunning mistake, one that Martinez and the perpetrator, Daniel Murphy, said they had no problem with in retrospect. Murphy tried to go first-to-third on Wilmer Difo’s second-inning single. He was out by feet, and a rally was cut down with his awkward slide at third.
“I’m trying to get to third base with one out right there to give [Pedro Severino] a chance to drive me in with the pitcher on deck,” Murphy said. “I’ll do that play 10 times out of 10. I would prefer not to get thrown out, but I’d do it every single time.”
Such is the stubbornness in this clubhouse, a stubbornness that could be good if one subscribes to Scherzer’s philosophy. Such is the stubbornness in Martinez, a relentless adherence to positivity that did not stop him from pointing out that two bad two-strike pitches undid the Nationals on Monday. One was the sinker that Brandon Kintzler threw Mookie Betts in the seventh inning, the one Betts hit out to left center to give the Red Sox the eventual winning run.
The other was the fastball Scherzer threw Porcello after making him look silly on two pitches away with the bases loaded and two outs in the second inning. Red Sox Manager Alex Cora had told Porcello to take three pitches and head back to the dugout. Porcello later said, “I got lucky.”
Scherzer later took responsibility for the mistake, said he needed to be better, to execute against everyone. He also said he was proud of how, despite his pitch count climbing over 80 in the first four innings, he gave a tired bullpen six innings and did not surrender another run.
“If you only look at the bad, nothing ever comes good out of it,” Scherzer said. “If you always want to just continue to beat yourself up and just go home at night always thinking about bad — all the bad plays, all the mistakes you make — you’ll never become a better player.”
Scherzer struck out nine in those six innings, the seventh of which made him the 11th player in baseball history to strike out at least 1,000 batters for two teams. The ball was in his locker after the game, but it didn’t come up.
Murphy, Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper — all of whom hit solo homers — talked about the good, about the good at-bats, about the need to “grind” through this. Harper ended his interview with “it’s July 2nd,” a new twist on the “it’s early” refrain some of his teammates have begun to abandon now. That it’s July 2nd should be a sign of urgency, and for many of these Nationals, it has been. But is urgency best channeled into determined positivity or unbridled angst?
“Look, we’re not playing our best baseball right now. It’s obvious. But at the end of the day, you do have to take solace in how you’re going out there and doing the things well,” Scherzer said. “We grinded. We played tough. We fell one run short. As much as we can reflect upon kind of our failures, we can also reflect upon some of the things that we are doing well, and hopefully it will turn.”
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Monday’s box score: Red Sox 4, Nationals 3