Even with Cy Young showing, 2017 was a grind for Scherzer

It’s easily forgotten now, because so much has transpired since, but Max Scherzer had a serious problem in spring training. He couldn’t throw a fastball with his normal grip, the pressure of the side of the ball on the previously fractured knuckle on his right ring finger too painful.

Things got so bad that Scherzer, who had to withdraw from the World Baseball Classic due to the injury, wound up changing his grip altogether. Instead of throwing fastballs with the traditional two fingers grasping the top of the ball, he started throwing them with three fingers in that position, protecting his healing ring finger.

It wasn’t until March 22 that Scherzer finally made his Grapefruit League debut, and did so throwing with a normal grip. Crisis averted.

Which might well have been the overriding theme to Scherzer’s 2017 season. He averted a bunch of crises along the way, from the fractured knuckle to a line drive off his knee to a bad disk in his neck to a line drive off his calf to a hamstring strain suffered in his final regular season appearance.

max-scherzer-nlds-walk.jpgScherzer never had to miss significant time, but he nonetheless made his fewest starts (31) and threw his fewest innings (200 2/3) in five years.

Which could only lead the uninformed spectator to conclude that the Nationals ace had a rough season. A rough season that still culminated in a Cy Young Award, the third of his career and second in a row.

There are any number of ways to appreciate Scherzer’s award-winning season, but perhaps the most impressive thing about it was the fact he rarely was 100 percent healthy when he took the mound.

“I really have to thank the training staff,” the 33-year-old pitcher said Wednesday night. “I dealt with a lot of injuries that maybe weren’t at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Everyone had a role in keeping me on the field, and I’m very grateful for all their hard work. Without their hard work, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

Make no mistake, this season was a grind for Scherzer, especially the second half, during which he suffered from his neck ailment, the comebacker off his calf and then the hamstring strain. That last ailment prevented him from starting until Game 3 of the National League Division Series and reduced him to a relief role in the pivotal Game 5 loss to the Cubs.

How good, then, was he to have still produced the kind of numbers required to win a Cy Young Award in a year in which the two other finalists (teammate Stephen Strasburg and Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw) each had a viable case for the trophy?

The answer: really good.

Scherzer is a perfectionist, constantly striving to improve in any way he can, rarely 100 percent satisfied with what he’s done. It suits him well, but it also leaves him still stewing over the manner in which the season ended for him and his team.

Pitching out of the bullpen in Game 5, Scherzer endured through a nightmare top of the fifth, allowing four runs via a series of bizarre events and turning a 4-3 Nationals lead into a 7-4 deficit. Though plenty of others were to blame as well, he’s the one who forever will have an “L” next to his name in the box score as the game’s losing pitcher.

That fact still gnaws away at Scherzer.

“You linger on it,” he said. “If you didn’t, I don’t think you’d be human. I couldn’t even watch the LCS at all. I couldn’t watch baseball for the next 10 days. I am a baseball fan, so I watched the World Series. And it was an unbelievable World Series. But that series against the Cubs will eat at me for the entire offseason.”

When Scherzer reports for spring training three months from now, he’ll be healthy. He’ll also be entering his 10th full big league season, his 34th birthday looming in July.

If history has taught us anything, we know it’s only going to get harder for Scherzer from here on out. He’s one of the sport’s most reliable workhorses, making at least 30 starts for nine straight years. Only Jon Lester can say the same.

If the last three seasons watching Scherzer at his absolute peak, though, has taught us anything else, it’s that nobody is more driven. Not simply to duplicate what he’s been doing year in and year out. But to elevate himself to yet another level.

“My only goal for 2018 is to be a better pitcher than I was in 2017,” he said.

Given how good he just was, it’s scary to think how much better he could still be.

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