This past week has been difficult for everyone associated with the Nationals. For the four players who learned they tested positive for COVID-19, for the nine players and staff members who were forced into quarantine because they were deemed close contacts, for all the others who were nervous about their teammates’ and their own health.
And then there’s Max Scherzer, who endured though a completely different kind of agony. The Nationals ace knew he wasn’t in danger of contracting the virus, because he flew home from spring training with his family, not on the team charter. Of course he was sympathetic to his affected teammates, but more than anything he was a pent-up ball of adrenaline with no outlet to release it.
Scherzer had long circled April 1 on his calendar, knowing he’d be starting opening night against Jacob deGrom and the Mets. Then that game was postponed. Then the rest of the weekend series. Then Monday’s series opener against the Braves.
Now, five days since he thought he’d be pitching, 10 days since he last pitched at all, Scherzer finally gets to take the mound after being holed up in his house way more than he would ever want this time of year.
“Yeah, it was probably better that nobody was able to be around him,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said during a Zoom session with reporters. “He would have been terrible to be around. He’s hardly bearable on a regular five days, so 10 days would have been miserable.”
What Scherzer just experienced was nothing compared to the suffering so many others have. And he’d be the first to acknowledge that.
But the three-time Cy Young Award winner is a creature of a habit, a perfectionist who plans everything out in advance and doesn’t like to have to adjust. Even though the last year-plus has forced him, and the whole world, to do just that.
“Unfortunate situation, but that’s what we’ve dealt with over the past year playing through this pandemic: Be ready for the unexpected,” he said. “As soon as you think you have something nailed down, it’s going to be pulled out from underneath you. You just have to take this in stride and understand what’s going on.”
How did Scherzer make sure he was still prepared for today’s start? He found a place (and an unnamed partner) to play catch while the team was prohibited from entering Nationals Park. Once the opening weekend series was postponed, he threw the equivalent of a bullpen session Friday. And then he made plans to start Monday, only to adjust to today instead.
The end result? He’s as ready as he’ll ever be to face the Braves.
“I was pretty much able to keep my arm where it needs to be,” he said. “I feel good. I feel ready. Just anxious to get pitching. This is going to be fun.”
How about one more wrench to throw into the mix, though: With both Yan Gomes and Alex Avila apparently among the players in quarantine, Scherzer is going to have to make his first start of the season with a catcher he’s never worked with before.
Manager Davey Martinez said the club hopes Jonathan Lucroy is cleared to play after the veteran signed a minor league contract over the weekend and waited for his COVID-19 intake screening to be processed. If Lucroy isn’t cleared, it’ll probably be Tres Barrera, owner of two major league plate appearances.
Scherzer plans to sit down with his new catcher and pitching coach Jim Hickey this morning and run through a game plan for the Braves lineup.
“I never really try to get stuck into: ‘I only throw to one catcher,’” he said. “I don’t like that mentality. I like to think I can throw to anyone, any type of catcher I can always work with and go out there and get on the same page with and win the game with. Whoever it is tomorrow, that’s great. We’ll do our work and compete at our highest.”
At this point, what other choice do Scherzer and the Nationals have?