Slow-healing knuckle puts Scherzer’s opening day start at risk

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - While some of his Nationals mound mates threw bullpen sessions on the first day of spring training workouts for pitchers and catchers on Thursday, right-hander Max Scherzer played catch. Scherzer is still dealing with the aftermath of a stress fracture in the knuckle on his right ring finger, and the injury that has confounded hand specialists and frustrated the Nationals ace and reigning National League Cy Young Award winner may have an even longer lasting effect.

Scherzer revealed today that though the fracture has healed structurally based on the latest MRI results, he’s still experiencing pain in the joint, and he wouldn’t commit to making the opening day start on April 3 against the Marlins that’s presumed to be his assignment if healthy.

“I don’t even want to comment on it because I don’t even know what I’m going to be able to do or not,” Scherzer said in the Nationals clubhouse while meeting with the media for the first time this spring. “It’d be unfair for me to even project or even talk about that. Really, we’ll just take it day by day and just see where this finger’s at and just keep progressing. (I) just know that I feel this fracture.”

Manager Dusty Baker, asked after the workout if Scherzer was in danger of missing the opening day start, sounded like a man who was at least mentally preparing for that possibility.

scherzer-intense-nlds.jpg“Anybody who’s been injured, the last quarter-mile is the longest mile of the whole race, so we’ll have to see,” Baker said. “It’s going to take a little while for Max to get his arm ready, to get the strength in his forearms. How long it takes, we don’t know. However long it takes, that’s how it is. We just have to find a way to replace Max if we have to for a temporary period of time. You hate that that happens, but Max has been very, very durable. Max is probably one of the hardest-working pitchers that I’ve ever seen, so his legs are going to be in great shape because he has more time to just work on that. We just have to wait.”

And even positive steps in the right direction don’t mean much until Scherzer is given the all-clear signal.

“You handle the progression as his body sees fit,” Baker said. “There’s nothing any of us can do until he feels 100 percent, and you certainly don’t want to rush him because you’re thinking about the long haul. That’s not very pleasant news, but at least they’re on top of it. Max is a worker - I mean, a big-time worker - so if Max said he’s doing better than it was, it’s almost healed.”

But Baker will still take a cautious approach and ready himself for the worst-case scenario he hopes he doesn’t have to confront.

“You gotta be prepared for that,” he said. “If it doesn’t happen, then I’m the happiest guy in the world. If it does happen, then you have to start looking at some options. We do have some guys that are champing at the bit. You hate to lose Max for any period of time. But like I said, that’s just speculation right now. We don’t know. But you certainly have to prepare for that.”

Scherzer, who lived and worked out in Florida instead of Arizona this offseason, said he has progressed from throwing tennis balls and lacrosse balls in order to keep his arm in some semblance of shape. Picking up and throwing a baseball this week was a positive step in his recovery, but he’s unsure of how quickly he could be game-ready.

“For me, it’s throwing a baseball that’s been the biggest challenge,” he said. “Right now, this is the week that I’ve finally picked a baseball up and been able to throw with a modified grip, but not my true grip. So as this fracture continues to heal, as the symptoms continue to alleviate, we get treatment on everything, I’ll be able to work back into all my grips and obviously get back on the mound. But right now it’s just getting back out there, throwing a baseball and getting my arm in shape.”

The right-hander first noticed the knuckle issue in late August, when he was pitching eight innings of two-hit ball in a 4-0 shutout over the Orioles. What he first figured was tendinitis was later classified as a strain and then a sprain, but Scherzer pitched through the pain. Only after the season, when discomfort continued to persist, did he investigate further and the stress fracture was discovered. Scherzer was just happy that one injury didn’t lead to another, a common occurrence with pitchers who compensate for one problem and create another.

“The biggest thing that you have a question with is your elbow and shoulder,” he explained. “Those are fine. ... Nothing happened to my elbow or shoulder. Pitching through an injury like that, that’s your No. 1 concern. So the fact that none of those, nothing else happened structurally with my shoulder or elbow is the biggest plus out of this. The fact this turned into a stress fracture, that’s the cost of doing business.”

The recovery process has been difficult for a guy who trains like a beast and traditionally comes to camp ready to work even harder than he did during the offseason.

“I’ve dealt with aches and pains and strains. This is a whole different ballgame,” Scherzer said. “When you start dealing with a fracture, rest is really your only option to make everything heal and it’s difficult to make a fracture heal, especially in your finger or hand. ... I was giving it as much rest as possible. Even when you don’t experience symptoms, it’s tough to always get that healing to happen. For me, I’m just glad we look at the MRI and that little line that was there in my knuckle is gone. From now, it’s just progressing and doing what I can to make sure that this never happens again.”

Ironically, the problem only occurs when Scherzer does what he does best: grip and throw a baseball.

“Actually, in most of my day-to-day life things, I don’t experience any pain,” Scherzer said. “It’s just throwing a baseball is the one thing that hurts, which is the only thing that I actually don’t want to experience pain with. ... I’d rather have all the pain in my day-to-day life and be fine on the mound.”

And he’s learning another painful lesson: that injuries have their own timetable that has nothing to do with an inconvenienced patient, no matter how motivated he is to get better.

“I’ve always definitely been aggressive when trying to deal with different ailments,” Scherzer said. “This is just a different type of injury than something I’ve experienced. Got to use your brain a little bit in a different way and just really rely on all the medical staff and doctors and trainers that we have and just use all the different therapeutic techniques and devices that we have to facilitate this.”

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