This was a step Monday night. The entire sport of baseball could be enveloped by the shadow of Giancarlo Stanton — body by Adonis, stats by Bonds, 17 home runs in August alone. Washington was next on Stanton’s list of cities to torch. The Nationals lay quietly in wait, and they stepped forward. That’s all they have done this season, regardless of who has been on the mound, who has been in the lineup, who has opposed them in the dugout across the diamond. They have marched on.
Step one: Max Scherzer got back on the mound. Now, he only missed two weeks, and we were told all along it was just a minor neck problem — one he could solve himself by exercising properly, he said. Still . . .
This team can’t be whole without Scherzer playing the role of Scherzer, and he did it Monday night. His first confrontation with Stanton ended in a double-play ball, his second and third in strikeouts. His 100th pitch finished the seventh inning with his 10th strikeout, and he was back, Max as Max: seven innings with five hits and a single run, grunting with delight as he pumped in fastballs at 96 mph.
“We’re glad he’s back on the mound,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said, “because he was driving himself crazy — and driving us crazy, too.”
Step two: Jayson Werth was back in the lineup. He missed 2½ months, and this was a major issue — a broken bone in his foot. Because we see things through the what-can-he-bring-in-October lens, and because Howie Kendrick has played well in his place lately, and Brian Goodwin did before that, there were questions about what a 38-year-old in the final year of his contract might have left to contribute.
But this team can’t be whole without Werth playing Werth. He has hit much more important, more emotional homers than the two-run blast he cranked to left in the fourth, but the ensuing bat flip and scream to the dugout showed what Werth believes, that you can have fun and be a force even in the October of your career.
“He hit that bomb,” Scherzer said, “and old grandpa looked over at the dugout and gave a big scream, so you know he’s back.”
On one night, these two reminded everyone not just of what this team can be, but of why they do this stuff. Put aside the $336 million that the Nationals will pay them, combined, for their 14 years of service. Scherzer’s performance came not just with pitches gunned past Stanton, but with grunts of punctuation — effort and joy rolled into one. Werth’s first appearance since June 3 came with that guttural scream to his teammates in the dugout — one that came from the little kid he once was. Rehab, a trip to the minors — they have a way of reminding a grizzled old big leaguer what this is about.
“You remember why you play the game,” Werth said. “You remember why you’re doing this. You start the game as a kid, and you turn into an old-man businessman, so to speak. You remember: You’re doing this because you love to play. Originally, you started doing this because you love the game. From the first pitch to the last, the game’s pure. It’s awesome. And that’s why we do it.”
Heady stuff, for sure. You know who would love to hear that assessment? Mark Lerner, one of the club’s principal owners. On Monday night, Lerner, too, was an indication that this team is closer to being itself. He beamed from the deck outside the luxury club behind home plate during a pregame ceremony honoring former Nat Pudge Rodriguez (as well as former Montreal Expo Tim Raines). Lerner hasn’t spent much time at his family’s playground this summer, battling cancer that ravaged his leg, eventually requiring amputation earlier this month.
But with his family, including patriarch Ted, all around him, and with General Manager Mike Rizzo hugging him and giving him a double-fisted, flexed biceps show of strength, Lerner’s subtle appearance on the night Scherzer and Werth came back seemed fitting, too.
So, taking inventory: Baker said shortstop Trea Turner will return from his broken wrist Tuesday. With that wound healed, they will just need to get right fielder Bryce Harper back from the bone bruise in his left knee (unknown) and setup man Ryan Madson back from a finger sprain. Then, they will actually be playoff-ready. They aren’t yet. But it’s coming.
“Slowly but surely,” Werth said.
So you can start to envision the team, as constructed on paper, even though the paper has been in the trainer’s room much of the summer.
“I don’t think we have to start to envision it,” Scherzer said. “We know how good we can be when we’re at full strength.”
Scherzer’s performance highlighted that. There had to be a little bit of doubt given his travails over the last month, which included pulling himself from a start just an inning in, then getting scratched in the hours before another.
“You try not to worry,” Baker said. And now, you don’t have to.
“I just like watching him compete,” said Marlins left fielder Christian Yelich, whose fourth-inning solo homer was the only damage against Scherzer. The little Monday-night-with-school-started-again crowd of 20,838 liked it, too. The highlights: the slider he got Stanton to wave at for a strikeout in the fourth, then the fastball he muscled by him for the strikeout in the sixth. Stanton may have arrived here with an August slugging percentage of 1.000, but he left Game 1 a mere mortal thanks to Max.
And so, then, there was Werth. Before he got hurt — smoking a fastball off his foot in Oakland — the Nats were healthy, and they have played more games without him than with him this season. After all that time, it’s easy to forget what he brings. The home run was one thing. But fouling off five two-strike pitches before his single in the sixth — the inning the Nats did their damage, batting around and scoring six runs — was perhaps a greater indication of what the Nats still have in his old bones.
“September should be a lot of fun,” Werth said. “And hopefully October is even more fun.”
We can’t know, not yet. But we can wonder what a full Nationals team might look like and play like. The one that’s been here all summer has relentlessly stepped forward. Not Giancarlo Stanton — not anyone — has stopped them yet.