WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - For all his stomping on the mound and cursing when he misses painting the black, Max Scherzer is at heart a student of pitching. There’s nothing the right-hander likes more than delving into the game within the game, the subtext of an at-bat that may not be discernable to the naked eye.
That’s how he approached his 54-pitch outing in the Nationals’ 5-3 victory over the Orioles on Tuesday: an opportunity to mesh with catcher Kurt Suzuki on some of the intricacies of game-planning, an exercise under the Florida sun that could pay dividends sometime down the road.
“It’s kinda just putting the sequences together, moving between each pitch, understanding where the extension needs to be on each pitch,” Scherzer said after tossing 3 1/3 innings and allowing two runs on five hits with one walk and five strikeouts.
“Kind of what sequence makes you fail, where you don’t execute a pitch in the sequence. That’s working with Zuk, understanding what pitches we want to put together and continuing - if we fail at one, do it the next time out.”
Since Scherzer reports to the Nationals facility in January to begin his preseason prep, and because he’s more advanced because of the early start, he’s been throwing all of his pitches with some regularity. So now, as he builds up arm strength and throws roughly 15 more pitches an outing than in his previous appearance, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty.
“It felt good,” he said. “Getting in synch with Zuk, working on some different sequences of pitches. Executing some good pitches, also made some mistakes. I got what I needed to get out of this outing.”
It’s a pass-or-fail exercise and the hitters aren’t sheepish about letting Scherzer know when a sequence isn’t successful. Each outing brings new hurdles and as Scherzer increases his pitch count, he’s got to come up with a plan to get the same batter out more than once.
Taken in the context of a whole 162-game season, it’s important planning and - hopefully - execution.
“You understand the process of this,” he said. “It’s all about building up arm strength. This is a time where you can just work on different things as you see different guys. As you get a little deeper into outings, now you’re facing guys two times through the lineup. That’s kinda the challenge now: Can you get him once? Can you get him twice as you build up? Just making sure everything feels good as you continue to move forward. For me, I understand the process and you gotta make these little 15-pitch count increments every outing to get yourself ready for the season.”
Manager Davey Martinez has grown accustomed to Scherzer’s little quirks and said he expects nothing but maximum effort on all fronts from his ace.
“I’m not surprised at all. He does everything with a purpose,” Martinez said. “Today he came out and took a full round of batting practice. But that’s his preparation during the season, so he wants to feel like it’s game day for him and do everything like he normally does and get everything in as much as possible.”
Martinez said left fielder Adam Eaton exited today’s game in the top of the second inning with a tight left hamstring. The manager wasn’t sure whether Eaton was dealing with the injury before the game or whether it was exacerbated when he ran out a ground ball to second base in the bottom of the first.
“Just got tight. Nothing major, but I’m just not going to take a chance,” Martinez said. “He said something to Howie (Kendrick), Howie told me and I said, ‘Get him out.’ You know him, he’s never happy (to be out of a game). But I said we’re not going to take any chances right now. If we were during the season, I probably wouldn’t have taken him out. But we’re going to be very cautious with these guys right now.”
Officially, Eaton is listed as day-to-day.
First baseman Eric Thames has been dealing with left calf tightness, but Martinez said he expects the veteran to return to game action this weekend, likely with a stint as a designated hitter.
“At this time of year, I’m going to do everything with caution,” Martinez said. “He’s swinging, he’s taking ground balls, he’s doing everything. I told him there’s no sense of pushing it.”
Thames last played Feb. 25 against the Cardinals in Jupiter.