Asked when he made the decision, Martinez replied: “The day I got the job.”
Perhaps more interesting than the fact Scherzer will be on the mound March 29 in Cincinnati against veteran right-hander Homer Bailey is how the rest of the Nationals rotation will be configured behind him.
Martinez revealed that this morning, as well. It’ll be Stephen Strasburg in the season’s second game, with Gio Gonzalez pitching the series finale against the Reds. Tanner Roark will be the No. 4 starter, facing the Braves on April 2 at SunTrust Park. The club still needs to decide who will start the fifth game, but Scherzer will return for the series finale in Atlanta, lining up Strasburg to pitch the Nationals’ home opener (April 5 against the Mets).
This will be Scherzer’s third career opening day start, all of them coming with the Nationals. (Strasburg got the assignment last year because Scherzer’s debut was delayed by a stress fracture in his knuckle that briefly forced him to try pitching with an altered grip.)
It hasn’t taken long for Martinez to recognize what distinguishes the back-to-back National League Cy Young Award winner from the rest of the pack.
“He’s a competitor, comes to compete every day,” the rookie manager said. “He’s that guy. What I’ve learned so far, he’s a leader. He wants to win, every day. Every five days he wants the ball. As you guys know, he doesn’t like giving the manager the ball in any games. But I love him. He comes out and he’s fired up every time he goes out to pitch.”
Given his personality and competitive nature, Scherzer doesn’t take kindly to suggestions he push back a start or take any time off in-season. Martinez, though, believes in the idea of giving his best starters extra days off when the schedule cooperates early in the season. So even though Scherzer could pitch the season’s fifth game on normal rest, he’ll be held back to pitch the following day and will remain on a five-game - not five-day - schedule for the foreseeable future.
“We’ll see how it plays out, but a big component of this is to make sure we rest them,” Martinez said. “Especially early. ... We want them fresh in August and September.”
Thus, the Nationals will need their No. 5 starter for the season’s fifth game (April 4 in Atlanta). The identity of that starter has not yet been decided, but Mike Rizzo suggested this morning it will be A.J. Cole, with Jeremy Hellickson unlikely to be ready to open the season in the rotation after joining the club over the weekend.
“(Cole) is going to make the team,” the general manager said. “He’s out of options. He’s got a great arm. He’s a good prospect. He’s going to make the team.”
Hellickson, who signed a minor league contract Friday, threw a 60-pitch bullpen session Saturday and said he believes he’s not far behind the other pitchers who have been in camp from the beginning. Rizzo, though, suggested the 30-year-old will need some more time to catch up.
For now, Hellickson is scheduled to start one of Friday night’s split-squad games, with Cole getting the assignment in the other game. His contract includes an opt-out, but not on the typical end-of-spring date most veterans on minor league deals get. So the Nationals could have him open the season in the minors without losing him.
“He’s a competitor; he probably thinks he can pitch opening day,” Rizzo said. “He probably thinks he’s the best-suited to pitch opening day. And that’s the attitude these big leaguers have, because that’s how they get to the big leagues. But he also realizes we’re going to make the decision. It’s not a secret what we’re thinking, because the contract is structured as such. Like we do with all the players that come in here, there’s no gray area. We’ve discussed with him and our representative what our plan is, and he’s got to trust us that we’ll do the right thing by him.”
Rizzo also admitted after seeing late-signing players struggle early in the regular season in the past, he doesn’t feel any reason to rush Hellickson into the rotation.
“It’s hard to throw anybody into the fire when you’re not prepared,” Rizzo said. “Because as we’ve seen in the past, you just never catch up. When you don’t have your spring training, it just snowballs and it never catches up. We’ve seen it time and time again, with Joe Blanton and (Matt) Wieters last year. When you don’t have your footing and your base to start the season, you’re constantly playing catch-up. We don’t want that. It doesn’t behoove anyone to do that.”