WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Despite allowing an early run, Nationals ace Max Scherzer was his regular season self Saturday as the club gets closer and closer to opening day.
Scherzer threw 87 pitches, 63 for strikes over six innings, allowing only a first-inning run to the Cardinals. The Nats built a 5-1 lead, but the Cards came back late to post an 8-5 win. Scherzer struck out nine, walked none and at one point retired 14 batters in a row, getting into a nice rhythm with his new backstop, veteran Yan Gomes.
Tommy Edman tripled to begin the game. José Martínez singled to put the Cardinals up 1-0. After that, Scherzer did not allow another base hit until a bloop single to Evan Mendoza in the fifth.
It was close to a dominating performance for Scherzer, setting him up for one more spring start before heading north to take on the Mets on March 28.
“Yeah, he was really good,” said Nats manager Davey Martinez. “He’s knowing it’s getting to be that time, so he’s got one more outing after this and it’s gametime. I expected him to go out there and do exactly what he did.”
Scherzer said he went after the Cardinals lineup, filled with very few of the offensive starters he would expect to see come the regular season.
“Given that two starts out, I wasn’t going to be facing anybody in that lineup ... I mean there was probably a couple of guys I was going to see during the year, but it wasn’t their true A lineup,” Scherzer said. “It allowed me to go out there and really be aggressive and throw all the pitches I want to throw, try to strike guys out and really try to make this (like) an in-season start as (much as) possible and try and finish strong.
“After 75 pitches, that sixth inning, (I wanted to) make sure I’m finishing strong and throwing strikes in that inning. That’s very important.”
Scherzer used the start to get into rhythm with Gomes. Martinez said Scherzer is working well with Gomes and Kurt Suzuki as March reaches its final days.
“They are working well together, they really are,” Martinez said. “He likes throwing to both, Yan and (Kurt) Suzuki. Suzuki caught him a couple of times, too. He likes them both. Scherzer is going to go out there and they have a game plan. They’re going to work that game plan.”
Scherzer said he is making the slightest tweak to his off-speed pitches, more where to place them versus the feel of the pitch, and then relaying that frame to Gomes.
“Just all the off-speed. The sequences, working with Yan,” Scherzer said. “This was a good day to really work with Yan to get him back and start. There were little things we were going over, just in certain situations how I want to execute certain pitches. It’s just getting on the same page.”
Scherzer said he was particularly interested in communicating with Gomes about when he wanted to throw the changeup in or out of the zone.
“There’s a few small things I still need to refine,” Scherzer said. “There’s some executions that I can continue to execute better. ... Like a changeup below the zone, instead of leaving it in the zone. There’s different situations where you want a changeup in the zone and certain situations where you want the changeup actually out of the zone.
“There were a few times today where I was throwing the changeup in the zone that I actually wanted it out of the zone. So it’s just getting on the same page with Yan and let him understand, hey, this is what I’m trying to do with that pitch. That way it allows him to set up everything just right.”
After allowing the two early base hits, Scherzer started noticing which pitches the Cardinals were chasing. He racked up six strikeouts in a four-inning stretch. Walking off the mound after each inning, Gomes and Scherzer started the strategy sessions.
“I was seeing what was going on with different types of swings,” Scherzer said. “How we want to react in different situations to lefties and righties. Today was very good for both of us to try to get on the same page and what we’re seeing and what’s going to work during the year.”
Scherzer liked the way he was able to attack the Cardinals, even if they were able to connect for two hits and a run to begin the game.
“But for the intensity, basically from the first inning through the first five innings, to be strong especially through those first five innings, that was a good sign today and something I look forward to taking into the regular season with,” he said.
Scherzer said it will take a while to get into perfect coordination with Gomes. That synchronization of thinking and implementing new ideas can go well into the season before they really get clicking. Scherzer admits he is still learning, even with a pair of Cy Young awards on his mantle.
“That’s the best thing about working with new catchers is that they have new ideas,” Scherzer said. “They have a whole different way of looking at you and understanding how they are approaching you. For me, I look at it as a bonus. A way to continue to critique myself, find holes in my game that I can get better at.
“Trying to get on the same page with your catcher, ... that’s a thing. But it’s also a good thing because sometimes they’re saying some different things to you in a different way. Sometimes you need to hear that. You need to hear how your pitches look, shape and how they sequence together. Maybe there’s something you need to do a little differently. That’s the good thing that comes with working with a new catcher.”