WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Max Scherzer didn’t need to say much this afternoon. His smile and upbeat mood said enough about his state of mind after an encouraging start in a minor league game.
“Now I feel back,” he said.
The venue - Field 4 outside The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in front of a few dozen fans - might not have suggested a full return to normalcy, but that was less important to Scherzer and the Nationals than the manner in which he pitched against the Mets’ Triple-A squad.
Using a standard, two-fingered grip on his fastball with no pain for the first time this spring, Scherzer threw 54 pitches over three innings, at times looking dominant but most significantly emerging healthy and ready to take the next step toward opening the season in the Nationals rotation.
To date, Scherzer had only faced teammates in live batting practice. And he had been throwing fastballs with a modified, three-fingered grip to help alleviate pain from the stress fracture in the knuckle on his right ring finger. The reigning National League Cy Young Award winner did still throw some fastballs with three fingers today, but he threw a considerable number with only two fingers and said he felt no ill effects from it.
“I can’t really tell any difference between the two,” he said. “It’s good to be back to the normal grip. From here on out, I’ll obviously be progressing that way and dialing it in to really try to pitch with the fastball again.”
Scherzer (who pitched to new batterymate Matt Wieters) used all of his pitches during today’s game, showing some strong command of his curveball and changeup. That helped lead to five strikeouts in three innings, though a lack of consistent fastball command led to two hits, three walks and a hit batter, all of which resulted in a pair of second-inning runs.
“Felt like a cue ball out there today,” he said. “Balls felt really slick. Couldn’t throw a fastball for a strike. That happens.”
With Scherzer having thrown 30 pitches to seven batters in that second inning, the Nationals ended the frame despite only two outs having been recorded, a luxury afforded to them in the controlled environment of a minor league game and not in a big league game.
“Exactly, and that’s why you (have Scherzer pitch in this game),” pitching coach Mike Maddux said. “We wanted to get him up and down three times. And at 30 pitches in that second, we were able to shut it right off at 30. That’s why he was pitching over there, yes.”
Scherzer won’t be pitching over there anymore, though. Encouraged by what he saw, Maddux determined his ace is now ready to face big league hitters in a Grapefruit League game; he’ll start Wednesday against the Cardinals in Jupiter.
“We’ll take the training wheels off,” Maddux said.
Scherzer hinted that he’d like to make three more exhibition starts, ramping up from 70 pitches in his next outing to 85 and then 100. If he stays on a standard, five-day schedule after Wednesday’s game against the Cardinals, he’d be in line to pitch March 27 against the Mets and then April 1 against the Red Sox at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
That schedule wouldn’t allow Scherzer to start opening day (April 3 against the Marlins) but it would leave him available to pitch the season’s third game (April 6).
“There’s too many scenarios,” the right-hander said when asked about the possibility of pitching on opening day. “It’s pointless to really even talk about it.”
Dusty Baker admitted this morning it’s “probably not” possible for Scherzer to start opening day at this point, but the Nationals manager is not bothered by that scenario one bit.
“We’re just trying to get Max on the field,” Baker said. “Opening day, I’m sure it’s important to him but not as important as the rest of the season. After opening day, then what? Then you’re on second day.”