Max Scherzer will start today’s doubleheader opener in Philadelphia in what could very well be both his swan song after seven seasons with the Nationals and one last showcase for scouts of several clubs interested in acquiring the three-time Cy Young Award winner before Friday afternoon’s trade deadline.
Scherzer will take the mound at Citizens Bank Park for a Nationals team that needed to place four players (Trea Turner, Daniel Hudson, Austin Voth, Alex Avila) on the COVID-19 injured list this morning and will be without five members of Davey Martinez’s coaching staff as a result of the coronavirus outbreak that forced the postponement of Wednesday night’s game.
Taking over the four vacated spots on the active roster will be catcher Yan Gomes and reliever Tanner Rainey (both activated off the 10-day IL), plus infielder Luis García and reliever Andres Machado (recalled from Triple-A Rochester). The club also optioned catcher Tres Barrera to Triple-A, electing to keep veteran René Rivera as Gomes’ backup for now.
On a whirlwind morning to continue a wild week of setbacks for the Nationals, who have fallen out of contention and are now preparing to sell several players before Friday’s 4 p.m. deadline, the news that Scherzer will start today was perhaps the biggest surprise.
The 37-year-old is perhaps the most coveted player at the deadline, with at least a half-dozen clubs showing interest and the three National League West contenders considered the most likely trade partners given his ability to dictate where he goes as a player with at least 10 years of big league service time, the last five with the same organization.
There was some prevailing thought Scherzer wouldn’t start today as originally planned, not wanting to risk anything happening that could impact his availability in a trade. But the staff ace, who had to miss his last start due to tightness in his right triceps, said he wanted to take the mound for this game. And surely all clubs competing for his services will be watching closely and perhaps tweaking their offers to general manager Mike Rizzo as a result.
And with bad weather looming later this afternoon in Philadelphia, the decision was made to have Scherzer start the 12:05 p.m. opener, with Patrick Corbin on tap to pitch the nightcap if it’s played.
“He’s ready; we wanted to get him out there,” Martinez said during his pregame Zoom session with reporters. “And hopefully play Game 1. I heard the weather’s supposed to get really nasty this afternoon. We hope that we get the first game in, and we’ll go from there. But he’s ready to go. I spoke to him yesterday. He wanted to pitch the first game, and he’s ready.”
What happens if, by some chance, Rizzo completes a trade while Scherzer is still pitching?
“Remember who you’re talking about,” Martinez said with a laugh. “It’s something I’d have to do. It might be a struggle. I might have to carry him off the field. But we’ll have to do that. I told him just go out there and do what he does best. And that’s to compete. Don’t worry about anything else.”
The Nationals roster is perhaps not as devastated by the outbreak as it could’ve been. They do lose Turner, their All-Star shortstop who was first to learn he tested positive during the first inning of Tuesday night’s game. And they lose a key reliever in Hudson, who also is among the most likely veterans to be traded by Friday afternoon.
(Players can still be traded while on the COVID-19 IL, a league official confirmed today.)
The Nationals’ bullpen also will be without Voth, though the activation of Rainey (who had been out since June 28 with a stress reaction in his right leg) and recall of Machado help soften the blow.
And Gomes’ return after 19 days on the IL with an oblique strain is a bonus, though he, too, could be attractive to contenders in the next 24 hours. For now, the Nats are going with Gomes and Rivera as their catchers, with Avila (who already was on the 10-day IL with calf strains) now on the COVID-19 IL and Barrera optioned back to Rochester.
Martinez’s coaching staff ultimately required the most adjustments as a result of the outbreak. Five members of the big league staff (bench coach Tim Bogar, pitching coach Jim Hickey, first base coach Randy Knorr, third base coach Bob Henley and assistant hitting coach Pat Roessler) are out. In order to fill all those vacancies, the Nationals have shifted bullpen coach Henry Blanco to third base coach, bullpen catcher and interpreter Octavio Martinez to bullpen coach and have promoted minor league coaches Sam Narron (pitching), Gary Thurman (first base) and Brian Daubach (assistant hitting coach).
What about bench coach? Martinez laughed and said he’ll be his own bench coach today, though Kyle Schwarber (on the IL with a hamstring strain) appears ready and eager to help out.
“I spoke to most of (the coaches) this morning and tried to give them little words of encouragement,” Martinez said. “They’re all frustrated. They don’t like missing any games. Bogey did try to do some work this morning for me, which he typically does. But I told them: ‘We’ll get through this. Just make sure you guys stay healthy, that’s the biggest thing. Stay safe.’ “