- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 22, 2018

Nationals Park was nearly empty when Washington topped Atlanta 6-2 Sunday evening — almost 40,000 fans had been chased out of the stadium hours before by a midsummer monsoon.

But they left knowing starter Max Scherzer had again staked the Nationals to a lead most competitive teams could hang on to.

This time, the Nationals did, though they had to outlast two lengthy rain delays.

It wasn’t Scherzer at his best, and coming two days after he confronted ineffective teammate Stephen Strasburg in the dugout Friday, the Nationals’ ace had his own troubles.

He only allowed two runs in six innings and overcame a rain-soaked Sunday to set up the Nationals for victory over the Braves, a team Washington is chasing toward the playoff contention.

“There’s just so many things where you can go around the clubhouse and point to everybody and say: ‘Yeah, they had a hand in why we won today,’” Scherzer said. “And those are the best type of wins, when everybody goes out and plays as a team and we win like that.”

Scherzer has consistently been a vocal leader in a clubhouse that seems to be struggling to adapt without the presence of Jayson Werth, who helped turn Washington’s organization from cellar-dwellers to pennant-chasers.

This season, the Nationals have been mired in middle-of-the-road .500 baseball.

Washington’s assembled talent seems strong enough for another National League East title, but the results on the field resemble that of a changing of the guard.

The Braves, young and fiery, led by 21-year-old Ozzie Albies and 20-year-old Ronald Acuña, are in a tight race with Philadelphia atop the division.

The Phillies have their own young guns mixed with veterans in a breakout campaign.

Entering Sunday 6.5 games back in the East, Washington has a long road back toward contention.

On Friday, when Strasburg reached the dugout midway into the fifth, Scherzer exchanged words with Strasburg, and the pair seemed to argue as they left the dugout for the tunnel out of camera shot.

Manager Dave Martinez said they hugged it out in a meeting in his office postgame. No hard feelings. No problems.

“You get 25 guys competing, sometimes they compete amongst each other as well,” Martinez said before Sunday’s game. “It gets that way. Sometimes good things come out of it.”

And good things came in spurts Sunday, a game delayed initially nearly two hours for rain and later another 98 minutes for more rain.

Once the sun first broke through, Scherzer limited damage to one run in the second. Scherzer then singled, his 12th hit this year. He has a hit in 11 of his 20 starts in 2018. Perhaps that shines light on how Friday’s clash began. Scherzer’s a competitor and pushes his teammates as hard as he pushes himself.

“Settled it,” Scherzer said. “It’s over. End of story.”

Scherzer spoke most during a team meeting last month intended to jump-start a star-studded squad that has been stuck in a mire of slumps, injuries and bad luck, who now find themselves in third place in the NL East. He confronted Washington’s former first-overall pick about a topic that stays “in the family,” Strasburg said.

The road hasn’t always been up since then.

After Saturday’s rainout and Sunday’s delay, though, Anthony Rendon drove in Adam Eaton and Bryce Harper with a triple in the first. Harper hit an RBI single in the sixth and Matt Adams scored Juan Soto in the seventh. Harper launched his 24th homer in the eighth. It was ample offense for Washington’s pitching staff against Atlanta.

“Down in the second half, all these games are going to matter a lot, especially against them,” Kelvin Herrera said.

Still, Scherzer wasn’t his best self. He needed 18 pitches to retire Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis in the first. His pitch count inflated as Braves battled. Nearing 100 pitches, he entered for the sixth and forced a double play and struck out Johan Camargo to end his outing before the next rain delay slimmed the crowd even more.

It was Scherzer who earned his 13th win this season, a victory the Nationals needed if they are to climb back into the playoff picture.

“We’re a great team,” Scherzer said. “I know we can play with anybody. Hey, this is what we needed. We’re looking up at them. We need to chase them down.” 

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