PITTSBURGH -- Everyone wanted Max Scherzer back on the mound. He’s arguably the best pitcher in baseball, undoubtedly a key in the National League pennant race, a preeminent figure on the Nationals. And, he talks a lot.
“I think a lot of guys are ready to get him out of the dugout,” Patrick Corbin said Wednesday. “He’s kind of getting on nerves. He’s taking pre-workout [drinks] in games he’s not even playing. That’s just him. No, we’re excited. He’s the best in the game.”
He was back, finally, Thursday in Pittsburgh. Scherzer threw a 95-mph fastball at 7:29 p.m. At 8:49 p.m., Wander Suero jogged in from the bullpen because Scherzer had finished for the night. Four innings, 71 pitches, 48 strikes, one earned run. Scherzer was effective, not dominant. He’s in full reboot mode following two simulation games and being almost a month out from his previous start.
“Just wanted to come out here, not really empty the tank [Thursday] and just pitch,” Scherzer said. “I can’t get hurt again. That’s just the reality of this. Got out here, was able to go four innings and get a good feel for this of getting back in there. Just getting back in the game action because now it’s real. You can simulate games all you want, but simulated games aren’t real.”
What matters is that he’s back. Scherzer’s first of two tuneups -- he faces Baltimore next on Aug. 28 after dealing with the hapless Pirates -- yield to huge September outings. The Mets. The Braves -- twice. The Phillies. Tight races, big nights, why he makes $210 million. He’s thought about that, “in some ways.”
“But right now I’m living start to start,” Scherzer said. “I’m living really day-by-day of what I can and can’t do and trying to communicate with the trainers and strength coaches of, hey, what exercises can we do to get back out there and get this thing as strong as possible. [Thursday] was a good step. I’ve got a lot more work in front of me.”
He’s been good, but not a powerhouse in the postseason for the Nationals. His 3.72 ERA reflects that. Game 5 against the Cubs in 2017 is the last time Scherzer took a mound in the playoffs. He gave up the lead on three hits, two earned runs and a strikeout. He allowed just one earned run in his start earlier in the series. The loss cost Dusty Baker his job. It also installed another nasty Game 5 chapter in the Nationals’ short existence.
His nearest shot at redemption could well ride on what he does the rest of the way. Scherzer will still have a limit on his pitch count against Baltimore. He should be loose by his third start -- with the ever-reaching caveat, all is dependent on how he feels the day after an outing.
"Hopefully [Friday], he wakes up, he's well-recovered and we move forward," Davey Martinez said.
Scherzer’s second stint on the injured list could cost him a chance at another Cy Young Award. He remains top-five in ERA, batting average against, WHIP, strikeouts, opponent OPS and more. He is No. 1 -- by far -- in fWAR despite the time missed. Hyun-Jin Ryu is fifth in that category.
And, the time away didn’t temper his work on the bases. Scherzer beat out a double play in the second inning, then went first to third on a Trea Turner double. He later picked up a single to right field.
Scherzer has also considered the idea he may need to be different the remainder of the season. His velocity was strong against the Pirates during the Nationals’ 7-1 win. But, that’s never been the problem during this process. Almost half of his pitches against Pittsburgh were four-seam fastballs. They averaged 94.5 mph.
It’s the other stuff. Throwing a slider with everything he has. Snapping curveballs and managing changeups. Scherzer was pitching more than throwing with pure might in his first start back.
He hopes to feel well Friday morning after sleeping as much as possible on the flight to Chicago, then more once the team lands. Afterward, he’s back in the weight room to strengthen the area around his rhomboid muscle. His pitch count will go up next time. The ability to “empty the tank” will, ideally, follow. As will a postseason appearance -- maybe.
“This is a good start, but I’m not out of the woods,” Scherzer said.
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