Max Scherzer laughed when a reporter mentioned hearing he threw 65 pitches to live hitters Friday during the Nationals’ first workout of the summer, then made sure to clarify that manager Davey Martinez may not have conveyed that information with 100 percent accuracy.
Turns out Scherzer threw 32 pitches to hitters over two simulated innings. The 65 total Martinez revealed most likely included his warmup pitches before the batters stepped in.
Still, it’s a good sign of the current state of Scherzer’s arm as the rush to prepare for the abbreviated season commences. The ace right-hander says he’s on a program designed to leave him ready to pitch six innings on opening day, which is only 19 days away.
“Physically, I feel good,” he said. “I’m ready to be able to do that and ramp up for the season.”
Scherzer hardly sat idle over the last 3 1/2 months while baseball was on hiatus. He maintained a throwing program throughout the break and began to build himself up while facing live hitters in a quietly organized group of big league stars in West Palm Beach that became public earlier in the week via a report by The Athletic.
When he wasn’t preparing himself physically for the 2020 season, Scherzer was preparing himself mentally for the unprecedented campaign that awaits. A member of the MLB Players Association’s executive subcommittee, he was intimately involved in all discussions with the league and health experts that led to the creation of this 60-game season.
What did Scherzer learn from all those discussions about safety? That players’ No. 1 concern is less about testing positive for COVID-19 than the virus spreading through a clubhouse and infecting a swath of teammates and staffers.
On that front, Scherzer was quite encouraged by the protocols that were agreed upon to help prevent such an outbreak from occurring.
“The biggest thing, I guess in my mind, that this came back to was: Prevent the spread,” he said. “You can’t prevent anybody from contracting the virus away from the field. Our biggest concern is the spread of the virus, having it spread throughout a clubhouse. So when you factor in the testing and the protocols we have in place to help prevent it ... even if somebody were to contract it, even if it went through the testing system, there’s still an additional line of defense to prevent the spread. To me, that kind of alleviates a lot of fears. And I was able to convey that to players.”
Scherzer applauded the saliva test all players are receiving upon reporting for camp and will continue to take every other day during camp and the season, saying it’s got a higher accuracy rate than the nasal swab test that has been more prevalent around the country.
“I do feel safe about going into a clubhouse and knowing that everybody else tested multiple times negative to really curtail any possibility somebody could have it right now,” he said.
Scherzer has also been impressed with the measures that have been taken in stadiums to date. At Nationals Park, only 27 players are using the home clubhouse, with an empty locker between all players’ stalls. Other members of the 60-man roster are using the visitors’ clubhouse and auxiliary rooms on the stadium’s basement level.
The veteran pitcher knew all of this would be happening for a while, but the magnitude of it didn’t hit him until he reported earlier this week.
“Until you actually get in here and see it, yeah, it’s extensive, everything you’ve got to do,” he said. “They’re thinking about every little thing. We’re wearing masks everywhere inside. Keeping distance. Keeping groups small right now. You can’t really touch anything. You can’t even touch bottled water. They’ve really thought about everything to mitigate the risks here. I feel very safe being in this clubhouse, given the testing that we have.”
The workout regimen is different from everything these players have known their entire lives, and so will the scene on game days later this month. Scherzer, though, is holding out hope one key element from the past can still be part of the experience sometime in 2020: Fans in attendance.
“To me, that seems totally possible that could happen,” he said. “Obviously not at full capacities. But if fans are in here wearing masks in outdoor stadiums and being socially distanced ... I understand why the owners are talking about that being a possibility. Obviously they know best how they would actually go about bringing fans into the stands. But when I hear that, that’s music to my ears. Because playing in front of empty stadiums is not something I want to do. I’d much rather have fans in the stands.”
Everyone who showed up at Nationals Park today would’ve liked a lot of things to be different. At 11:05 a.m., Erick Fedde stood on the mound and threw pitches to Yan Gomes behind the plate. A few coaches and teammates watched.
But notably absent from the batter’s box was Astros leadoff hitter George Springer. And notably absent from the visitors’ dugout was Dusty Baker. And, of course, the stands were completely empty.
The Nationals should’ve been hosting the Astros in a marquee July 4 matchup dripping with compelling storylines. That, of course, didn’t happen. Nor did any game against an opponent, despite initial plans by Major League Baseball to open the season over this holiday weekend.
The bitter labor fight between the league and players prevented that from happening and ultimately pushed back opening day another three weeks.
That missed opportunity wasn’t lost on Scherzer.
“I just wish we were playing baseball today, July 4,” he said. “I think that was possible. That was a failure on a lot of different levels.”