Nats breathe sigh of relief after Scherzer passes key test

JUPITER, Fla. - Dusty Baker, speaking for everyone employed by the Nationals or fervently rooting for them from the outside, offered up a simple yet telling take after watching Max Scherzer make it through his first Grapefruit League start of the spring with no problems.

"Boy," the manager said with a sigh of relief. "That makes me feel a whole lot better."

Consider all of NatsTown worry-free about Scherzer after the ace right-hander passed his first real test of the spring with a 4 2/3-inning, 73-pitch outing against a Cardinals lineup featuring six regulars.

The results - two runs, five hits, one walk, four strikeouts - were good, not great. But those were secondary to the fact Scherzer was out there in the first place, throwing 94 mph fastballs with his normal, two-fingered grip after spending the last month trying to compensate on back fields with a modified grip.

Afterward, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner declared the stress fracture in the knuckle of his ring finger fully healed and no longer an issue in his mind.

scherzer-pitching-follow-through-sidebar.jpg"Finger feels like a finger," he said. "I'm getting through that injury. It's behind me now."

Scherzer said he was able to throw every one of his fastballs with a conventional grip, removing the third finger he had been using to alleviate pain. And while his command wasn't picture-perfect, his velocity - consistently 92-94 mph, topping out at 95 mph - was perfectly normal for late March.

So was the rest of his repertoire, which is as vast as just about any starter in the major leagues. Jose Lobaton, who was catching him for the first time since October, was surprised a bit how many different pitches Scherzer threw and how normal he looked.

"His slider was working good," Lobaton said. "Fastball command was good too; he got the velo. I think he was working a sinker, I think. He's been working it a little bit. It's been OK - it's a new pitch for him. But overall, it was good. He mixed everything. We threw curveballs, changeups, slider, cutter, and I felt like he was excellent."

After throwing 54 pitches in a three-inning start against the Mets' Triple-A squad last week, Scherzer was able to ramp up his workload today. That puts him in good position to build up more in his final two exhibition starts and approach the 100-pitch mark before taking the mound for his scheduled season debut.

Scherzer won't make it in time to pitch on opening day for the third straight year, but (barring a setback) he won't miss a turn in the rotation. Baker said his ace is on track to start the season's third game on April 6 against the Marlins.

"Considering where I was at coming into spring training," he said, "to not have to go to the DL, that's a huge feat."

Scherzer never thought this unusual injury would linger as long as it did. He admittedly pitched through it during the final month-plus of last season but figured an offseason of rest would resolve the issue.

But when the pain hadn't subsided by late December and an MRI revealed the stress fracture, Scherzer suddenly faced an altered timeline to prepare for the 2017 season. He had to pull out of the World Baseball Classic, weeks after committing to pitching in the international tournament. And when he reported to West Palm Beach for spring training in early February, he wasn't able to join the rest of his teammates on bullpen mounds.

Slowly but surely over the last five weeks, though, Scherzer progressed. He compensated for the knuckle pain by attempting to throw fastballs with a three-fingered grip, something he said he would be willing to try in a game if absolutely necessary.

That proved not to be needed, though, and today he pitched free and easy with no restrictions or alterations to his delivery.

In short, he didn't look like a guy who had to date only pitched in controlled settings on minor league mounds.

"No. And it's different in an A game than on the back field," Baker said. "He was good. He was very good."

Spring training is as long as it is specifically for starting pitchers, who typically need all six weeks to build their arms up to the point they're ready to go six or seven innings in the season's first week. Scherzer's timeframe this spring has been condensed, but he has no concerns how the process will now play out.

"The fact that the first time I threw a baseball was basically the first day of camp, to be able to make it and not go to the DL under those circumstances, I'm very fortunate," he said. "But I've got two more starts. Still have to get through those, and hopefully good stuff happens."

Thursday morning notes
Scherzer makes spring debut, goes 4 2/3 innings (N...

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