WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - For his second Grapefruit League start, Max Scherer had simple goals. He wanted to build up his pitch count, and succeeded, throwing 49 pitches over three innings. He hoped to display better glove-side location with his fastball, something he and catcher Kurt Suzuki had talked about between starts.
Those were the things Scherzer could plan for. It was what he couldn't have anticipated - and what looked like a momentary loss of command during a top of the first that required him to face seven batters - that brought out the best in him.
Scherzer weathered the opening-inning storm, relishing the test of adversity, something that's not present when starting pitchers ahead of hitters are recording 1-2-3 innings in quick fashion. The inning was ugly, by an ace's standards - a walk, an infield single, a throwing error on a fielder's choice, a pair of wild pitches and a run-scoring dunker to right field. Yet in the mess, Scherzer saw definite signs of progress.
"You don't just want to go three-up, three-down," he said after throwing three innings and allowing two runs (one earned) on three hits. "You want to pitch out of the stretch. You want broken-bat base hits to fall in. You want to face some adversity and have to make pitches around that. So for me, having to work out of a jam in the first, that's exactly what you're looking for. I was able to get so much out of today because the stuff happened in the first."
Coming back to strike out the final two batters in the first, retire the side in order in the second then get a 5-6-3 double play into the shift to end the third ended Scherzer's night on a good note. The Nationals and Astros called it a night after nine innings in a 5-5 tie.
"In the season, you're going to face that," he said. "I don't care who you are, you're always going to in the regular season face lineups where you're in big situations and have to make big pitches. If you don't get that in spring training, when you get into the season, you're not battle-tested. For me, I welcome it. You want it. You want to get battle-tested here in the spring to know how to make big pitches out of the stretch."
Manager Davey Martinez was happy to see Scherzer reach the three-inning plateau - and even happier that the veteran progressed a little with throwing his cutter.
"I'd like to see him throw the 15, 16 pitches and be out (of the inning)," Martinez said. He got his work in. "He went out and got through that third inning, which was nice. He was working on his cutter a little today, and it was actually pretty good, I thought."
The right-hander's most interesting observation from his Thursday night start might have been that he's two outings into spring training and already starting to get his feel for the ball - no small achievement for a pattern-oriented hurler who thrives on repetition.
"Making adjustments between starts, that's what you start looking for," Scherzer said. "For me, that's a sign I have feel of what I'm doing with the baseball. There's some things I want to continue to sharpen up and continue to get more feel for the baseball."
It's just luck that Scherzer's first two starts of spring training have come against the Astros. Because the Nationals will face the Astros only once during a July interleague series in D.C., Scherzer was able to work on some things without giving an opponent too long a look at him. He might have reacted differently, for instance, if the Nationals were facing a National League East foe like the Mets when he was pitching.
"You kind of let your opponent dictate what you're doing to do," he said.
While Scherzer was working through his second spring start, first baseman Ryan Zimmerman was making his Grapefruit League debut. It didn't take long for the ball to find him: The game's opening batter, George Springer, chopped a grounder past the mound that Zimmerman ranged in and to his right to grab, flipping to Scherzer for the out.
Zimmerman was 0-for-2, but his fly ball to center in the first advanced a runner from second to third.
"He had good at-bats," Martinez said. "Felt good. Said he felt really good."
During Scherzer's rocky first, Zimmerman fielded a grounder by Abraham Toro and tried to start a double play. But his throw to second short-hopped shortstop Wilmer Difo, skipping past him for an error that allowed a run to score.
Martinez said Zimmerman "didn't throw through the ball" and said he told Difo he couldn't let a ball like that get past him.
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