Lilliquist on Scherzer’s homers, Strasburg’s velocity dip and more

Each winter, Max Scherzer vows he can be better. Well, Nationals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist has something he thinks the three-time Cy Young Award winner can do to improve.

“He can keep the ball in the ballpark a little better,” Lilliquist said yesterday at Nationals Winterfest. “He got hurt with a lot of bad breaking balls in kill counts last year. So that’s going to be an area we’re going to really put a thumb on in spring training. We’ve got to execute (with two strikes).

Scherzer gave up 23 homers in 220 2/3 innings last season. It wasn’t the National League-leading 31 longballs he allowed in 2016, his second season in Washington, but Scherzer’s propensity to surrender homers on two-strike counts is something that became more than a minor irritation.

Scherzer-Slings-Gray@PHI-sidebar.jpgEleven of those 23 round-trippers came with Scherzer a strike away from striking out a batter. In a season when he fanned a career-high 300 hitters, add a few strikeouts to replace a few homers and there’s no telling how much better the right-hander’s 18-7 record or 2.53 ERA might have been.

“He strikes the world out, obviously, and it could have been better than that if he had executed (a) kill breaking pitch in that count,” Lilliquist said.

“Predominantly, what he got hurt on was the hanging slider he didn’t get to the right spot. Hitters are so good at judging the 17 inches of the plate, but they’re not good at judging on the plate underneath of the strike zone. That’s where he needs to go with it.”

* Lilliquist is certain that right-hander Stephen Strasburg will be able to regain the mid-90s velocity he had before his second trip to the disabled list last season with a pinched nerve in his neck.

When Strasburg returned from the neck issue in late August, he had a noticeable dip in radar gun readings, falling to 90-91 mph after a few innings of his early starts. Strasburg, who also spent time on the DL with inflammation in his right shoulder, said that the problem was fatigue and that it would dissipate after a normal offseason.

“After he came back, his velocity was down a little bit,” Lilliquist said. “But we were trying to get him to a spot where he’s not being overaggressive to get out of his mechanics. Trying to find that comfortable fine line of best stuff, best command, as opposed to best stuff (with) no command.”

That Strasburg was able to build up his innings without his normal velocity is encouraging, Lilliquist said. Strasburg worked at least six innings in four of his six September starts.

“Kind of pulled the reins back a little bit to find that click, and I think he found that click without his best stuff, and he was getting outs without his best stuff,” Lilliquist said. “So I think that’s very positive, and coming back to spring training, I think his velocity’s going to be right where it needs to be.”

* Lilliquist, who is entering his second year on manager Davey Martinez’s staff, is quite familiar with one of the Nats’ offseason bullpen acquisitions, righty Trevor Rosenthal.

Lilliquist was Rosenthal’s pitching coach in St. Louis during the hard-thrower’s entire Cardinals career, from 2012-2017. Rosenthal, 28, signed a one-year, $7 million deal with the Nats on Nov. 1. The former closer could earn as much as $28 million over two seasons if incentives are met and a mutual option is exercised.

“Obviously, we have good history and he’s a solid individual,” Lilliquist said. “He’s healthy and he did a full year of rehab. I didn’t get to see him personally throw, but I did see video when he was trying out, and it’s the same Rosey. Yes, he’s a force when he’s right.”

Rosenthal missed the entire 2018 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery to repair a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament late in the 2017 campaign. He held a showcase for major league clubs in October, and the Nationals wasted little time in adding him as part of their bullpen makeover after watching him register 99 mph on the radar gun.

“He’s a tough nut,” Lilliquist said of Rosenthal, who will set up closer Sean Doolittle in 2019 and could close on days when Doolittle isn’t available. “Very focused. Nothing bothers him. As all guys who are very good at what they do, they are able to .. execute one pitch at a time.”

* Friday’s trade for Indians All-Star catcher Yan Gomes completed the Nationals’ makeover behind the plate. The Nats had signed veteran backstop Kurt Suzuki to a two-year, $10 million contract in mid-November.

Lilliquist is excited about the arrival of two veteran catchers who get high marks for pitch-framing and game-calling.

“(They’re) very qualified game-callers and they’ve both been successful,” he said. “From watching them on the other side of the field, they’re both very fundamentally sound. They obviously contribute offensively. It’s a great addition.”

But bringing in Suzuki and Gomes means the Nationals pitchers, especially the starting staff, will have to work hard come spring training to develop a rapport with their new batterymates. Holdovers Spencer Kieboom and Pedro Severino can help in that process, but most of the work will have to be done on bullpen mounds in side sessions, in the video room and in Grapefruit League games.

The departure of veteran Matt Wieters, who was praised by Scherzer and Strasburg in his two seasons with the Nats, won’t easily be overcome.

“It’s spring training time. Developing a relationship ... and getting to know the cans and cannots, what (a pitcher) can and can’t do,” Lilliquist said. “Essentially, just building a relationship.”

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