WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Given how much he has been throwing already this spring - including the 60-pitch bullpen session on the first day of camp - a nice, simple, 23-pitch outing today against the Braves must’ve felt like a breeze to Max Scherzer.
“No,” the Nationals ace said with a laugh. “It’s amazing, once you put a real game out there and you put somebody with a different uniform (in the box), everything gets turned up a little bit. So, yeah, I’ll be sore tomorrow even though it was only 23 pitches.”
Scherzer may not have thrown many pitches in his Grapefruit League debut, but he threw plenty of good pitches. His lone mistake over the course of a two-inning stint: a fastball to Dansby Swanson that was supposed to be down and away but wound up belt-high and on the inside corner. The Braves shortstop proceeded to hammer the pitch down the left field line and off the Astros clubhouse beyond the visitors bullpen.
“At least I’m attacking the zone,” Scherzer said. “Went out there and threw strikes. Pitched with all my pitches. ... You really have no adrenaline whatsoever here in a spring start for the first one out. So I was able to at least put a foundation of establishing off-speed (pitches) in the zone and working off of that.”
This is a far different spring for Scherzer than his previous one, when a stress fracture in his ring finger forced him to try an altered, three-finger fastball grip and prevented him from pitching against another major league club until late-March. There’s nothing out of the ordinary this year.
“I’m not battling my body right now,” he said. “I feel great. Arm feels great. So I’m going out there in my normal routine of getting ready for the season.”
Scherzer will settle into a normal routine now, pitching every fifth day the rest of the spring, with two extra days of rest thrown in somewhere along the way to line him up for the Nationals’ March 29 opener at Cincinnati. He’s slated to make six exhibition starts before he faces the Reds for real.
By then, he hopes to have worked through every possible game scenario he might face in the regular season, not only building up his pitch count but also working out of the stretch and dealing with some adversity.
Twenty-three pitches today was merely the next step in a process that began with a 60-pitch bullpen two weeks ago.
“I know you guys thought it was amazing that I threw 60 pitches in the bullpen, but that’s what I do to get ready for the season,” Scherzer said. “You want fatigue early in spring training so you can work through it and continue to work on your pitch counts. Because that’s when you build that stamina and you’re able to go out there and compete for ... it’ll probably be 100 pitches in that first start that I make. So you have to be as ready as possible for that.”
Shawn Kelley won’t be throwing anywhere close to 100 pitches in a game this season. Ideally, he won’t even top 20 pitches on a regular basis. So there’s less need for the veteran reliever to get substantial work in spring training.
Today’s debut, though, was important for Kelley and for the Nationals, who wanted to make sure the right-hander was OK after battling an elbow injury much of last season.
“He looked better than OK,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He came out of the game, we made a joke: ‘Hey, don’t peak too soon!’ But it’s good to see him back out there. He threw the ball really well.”
Kelley, who replaced Scherzer on the mound for the top of the third, wasn’t out there for long. He needed only seven pitches (six strikes) to retire the side, inducing two ground balls and striking out Michael Snyder on an 0-2 slider.
“I felt great,” Kelley said. “I think this was as much for (the coaching staff) as it was for me, just to kind of gauge where I’m at physically, make sure that I feel as god as I say I do. Because we all have a tendency to say we feel better than we do sometimes.”
Kelley did try to pitch through discomfort in his elbow last season, and he paid the price for it. Unable to get full extension on his fastball or sharp bite on his slider, he wound up putting 40 batters on base in only 29 innings, serving up 12 home runs.
After an MRI revealed bone chips floating in Kelley’s elbow, the Nationals elected to avoid the pitcher’s third surgery of his career and instead hope a stem cell injection would help. So far, so good.
“The fastball’s got a little bit extra life, which you notice because you get the late swings instead of the loud contact,” Kelley said. “And the slider has that depth. Instead of floating it up there and hoping they hit it at somebody, you are getting the swings and misses. That’s what I was looking for today, and today was more than I could ask for. And physically, I felt great. I didn’t even think about my arm. I’m not thinking about it now.”