- - Thursday, August 23, 2018


He stands out there on the mound like a Spartan — the last of the 300, trying to carry the fight alone.

That’s who Max Scherzer is — a Spartan on a team of pacifists.

The Washington Nationals’ ace carried the fight to the Phillies Thursday afternoon before nearly 30,000 at Nationals Park for six innings before walking Maikel Franco in the top of the seventh and then surrendering the deciding two-run homer to Odubel Herrera.

The Phillies won 2-0 and now the Nationals — allegedly still battling for their postseason lives — have to wait five more days until their Spartan takes the mound again.

Until then, the Nationals will put their playoff hopes in the hands of a pitching staff that seems more conscientious objectors than warriors.

The most prominent of that group is the pitcher who stood on the mound for Washington less than 24 hours earlier — Stephen Strasburg.

If Strasburg stood shoulder to shoulder with Scherzer, the Nationals would still have a decent chance to battle back and win the National League East. The opposition — the Phillies and the Atlanta Braves — is not to be feared.

Instead, after more than a month on the disabled list (his second stint) with a neck nerve issue, the best the Nationals could get from Strasburg’s aching shoulders Wednesday was a shrug of discomfort and diminished velocity.

Washington’s dramatic 8-7 walk-off win came after four labored innings from Strasburg, who allowed five runs on seven hits.

“I’m proud of him,” manager Dave Martinez said after the game Wednesday night. “He went out there when we needed him and competed.”

That is a generous description of “competed.”

Especially when followed by another Scherzer gem — not even one of his best, giving up four walks. Still, a more convincing definition of what it means to “compete” — especially when compared to the rest of this hit-or-miss roster.

There was a lot of talk, coming back from the three runs Strasburg gave up in the first inning Wednesday night and the 7-5 deficit they faced after seven innings, about the fight of these Nationals, about how they don’t quit.

I think fight is being confused with talent here.

It may just be a case of simply the Nationals being too talented to lose some of these games. And they are still talented enough, even after the trades of Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams (called a fire sale — more like a barbecue). But their level may simply be the 64-64 team that they are now. They are a .500 team.

They don’t quit? Quitting would require a commitment. I don’t think this team is passionate enough for fight or flight.

Except for the Spartan, of course, who is in the mix for a third straight Cy Young award here, even with Thursday’s loss that put him at 16-6.

Let’s talk about fight for a minute. In four of his last five losses, the Nationals have been shut out, They’ve scored just four runs in the six losses Scherzer has on his record this season.

But he goes out there stomping and snorting and throwing the ball as if he is the last one left to protect their land.

Washington wound up winning the series, taking 2 out of 3 from Philadelphia, but every time they go out there and waste another Scherzer start, it seems to set them back further and further.

It sure didn’t feel like they had just won a series.

“We just have to play good baseball, go 1-0 every single day,” the Spartan said meeting with reporters after the game.

It was the first time he was asked about the trades that were characterized as the team raising the white flag on the season, and owner Mark Lerner writing a letter to fans saying the organization needs to look to next season.

“It was frustrating,” Scherzer said. “But it’s also been a frustrating season for us as a whole.”

Like being the only Spartan at a Quaker meeting.

Thom Loverro’s podcast, “Cigars & Curveballs,” is available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver network.

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