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Max Scherzer is back, but not yet all the way

Max Scherzer is back, but not yet all the way

WASHINGTON -- Though pleased in Pittsburgh, Max Scherzer warned he was “not out of the woods yet.”

He had at least returned to pitch for the first time in almost a month. The result against putrid Pittsburgh was palatable: four innings, one earned run, three strikeouts, and a walk. Sufficient, if unspectacular, for 71 pitches.

Wednesday brought a crisp opening. Scherzer struck out to the first two Baltimore batters in the Nationals' 8-4 win. Trey Mancini singled, DJ Stewart popped out. He zipped through the second with two more strikeouts. 

The third inning was taxing following a quick first two outs. Single, double -- run in, a rare four-pitch walk. Then the inning closed. The fourth was better, 1-2-3, and a big lead to work with. But, Scherzer’s effectiveness closed there. He allowed a leadoff homer to light-hitting Chance Sisco, recorded one more out, then surrendered back-to-back singles, the latter of the pair aided by mediocre right-side defense. Davey Martinez approached the mound. Scherzer kicked the dirt with his cleat and agreeably handed the ball over.

Scherzer has made two starts since returning from his second stint on the injured list. He’s thrown a total of 8 ⅓ innings and 160 pitches. The good Wednesday: Scherzer moved up to 89 pitches in his outing. The next time he pitches, when it is going to carry weight, will be against the New York Mets on Labor Day afternoon. Scherzer should be set for 100 pitches by then. The question is how sharp they will be.

Velocity has not been an issue. His fastball averaged 94.2 mph Wednesday and maxed out at 96. That’s in line with each of his five seasons in Washington. The telling number from Wednesday’s outing was 10. Scherzer created only 10 swings and misses with his 89 pitches. That’s a low rate for him, just 11.2 percent. Take his last outing versus Kansas City, the one before he went on the injured list for the first time. He threw 103 pitches, generating 25 swings and misses. That’s 24.3 percent, and a decent comparison because the Royals and Orioles are similarly unskilled at offense. He recognized Wednesday his pitches lacked some fierceness.

“The pitch count was up given that I was getting through 4 1/3," Scherzer said. "To me that also tells me I’m not able to just put away guys the way I want, the way I’m capable of. That’ll come when I can turn up the throttle a little bit. And so hopefully I can recover and be able to do that.”

An explanation for that could rest with his self-imposed governor. Scherzer has worked to control himself his last two starts. He’s desperate to stay healthy and fearful going too hard now will cost a chance to go at all later.

“We’re at the point in the season where there’s no room for error,” Scherzer said. “I can not get hurt. So, I understand that. That’s why I’m going out there pitching under control. I’m not going to put my body in jeopardy. If I give up runs, so what. I’m more focused on going out there and pitching, making my starts, throwing my pitches, and recovering. That’s the No. 1 thing. When I can get through this and I can start recovering well and really get into my routine, that’s what I’m really looking forward to getting to. Hopefully this is the turn that everything works, but we’ll see [Thursday].”

Scherzer is more in the training room than the weight room in between starts. Managing his recovery is the focus of his off days as the team moves toward September and possibly October. The unpredictability of his back injury has been beguiling for someone who tries to micro-manage each situation. Waking up has become more of a concern than taking the mound, which leaves him cautious about the future. 

“That’s been the hardest thing about this whole thing,” Scherzer said. “I can go out there … go back and throw hard, and the next day I’m suffering. For me, it’s always been about the next day. That’s where I’m going to see how I feel [Wednesday]. Hopefully, tonight was a good night. I can recover from tonight. Hopefully, this time I'm on my turn and get back on my normal routine of everything. So, we’ll see.”


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Sean Doolittle credits lavender oil on his glove for calm demeanor in October

Sean Doolittle credits lavender oil on his glove for calm demeanor in October

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle moves a glove out of the way as he reaches into a shelf in his spring training locker and grabs a different one, which he then hands over with a simple, if unusual, instruction:

“Smell it.”

So, of course, you do -- getting a sweet, soothing whiff of lavender, the sort you might get from a candle or bowl of potpourri. And now you know what Doolittle sniffed each time he jutted his right elbow toward home plate and tucked his glove under his chin to get his catcher's signs during last season's World Series.

At the suggestion of Washington's director of mental conditioning, Mark Campbell, Doolittle put lavender oil on the leather laces around the webbing of his glove for the postseason. It helped the lefty relax on the mound after a rocky regular season, much the way the bullpen as a whole morphed from disaster to asset in 2019, a trend of improvement the club figures will continue in 2020.

"I was so nervous during the playoffs. I was just a big ball of stress. Lavender has a lot of calming and soothing to it," Doolittle explained last week. "When I came set, I could smell it. It worked, man."

In October, he produced two saves and three holds, a 1.74 ERA and a .167 opponents' batting average as the Nationals went 8-1 in his appearances along the way to a championship.

"When you're a reliever and pitching in high-leverage situations in must-win games, and you're on-call every night for like a month, it starts to take its toll on you. And it's a challenge to stay even-keeled and to really manage that energy. That's the hardest part," Doolittle said. “(Campbell) helped me out a lot. My regular season did not go the way I wanted it to go, but I was very proud of the way I was able to get myself together and be really effective in the playoffs."

The same could be said about Washington's entire relief corps.

Doolittle wound up with his most appearances (63) since 2013, a career-worst ERA of 4.05, a 6-5 record and six blown chances -- twice as many as in 2017 and 2018 combined -- to go with a career-high 29 saves.

He was part of unit that had an ERA above 5.50, but got help at the trade deadline. Acquiring Daniel Hudson from Toronto, in particular, was key, even if additions Roenis Elías and Hunter Strickland dealt with injuries.

"On paper," pitching coach Paul Menhart said, "we are a lot stronger."

General manager Mike Rizzo brought back Hudson ($11 million, two years) and brought aboard Will Harris, a free agent from Houston ($24 million, three years).

Both can take on some of the late-inning responsibilities that Doolittle bore so often, getting worn out before heading to the injured list in August with a knee issue.

Elías (14 saves for Seattle in 2019) and Strickland (14 saves for San Francisco in 2018) have closer experience. Tanner Rainey can throw 100 mph and owns a tough slider.

So Rizzo should be able to forgo his usual in-season 'pen padding.

"Definitely is a good feeling knowing that we started spring training with a bunch of guys that have competed in the back end of the bullpen," manager Dave Martinez said. "If one of the guys needs a day off -- or two -- you have another guy that can cover. To have those guys here, whew, it was definitely on our list of 'to-dos.' I'm going to like looking down at that sheet of paper, going, 'Oh we've got Harris. We've got Hudson. We've got a healthy Strickland. And 'Doo' to close it out."

Like Doolittle's special, scented postseason glove, several teammates have some sort of 2019 memento they've held onto.

In a closet at home, Hudson keeps the glove he chucked after recording the last out against the Astros in Game 7 -- the initials of his wife and two oldest daughters are stitched on there; he used a marker to write the initials of his third daughter, who was born during the NL Championship Series against the Cardinals. Yellow-tinted sunglasses worn in the dugout for good luck sit in starter Aníbal Sánchez's locker. Outfielder Michael A. Taylor stored for safekeeping the baseball he dove to catch, with Doolittle on the mound, to end the NL Division Series against the Dodgers (Taylor says a teammate unsuccessfully tried to take that ball during the on-field scrum, but wouldn't reveal who).

When Doolittle heads out for the ninth inning this year, he'll have to do so with a new piece of leather: He switched glove companies in the offseason.

Might replicate that lavender treatment, though.

"I now associate that smell with having success in high-leverage situations. And managing myself. There's really positive energy associated with that: We won the World Series. I got to contribute. And I pitched pretty well," he said. “So there's definitely a connection there for me. It's definitely been ingrained, so we'll probably stick with it.”

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Juan Soto's Wild Card game-winning hit broke Eric Thames’ heart

Juan Soto's Wild Card game-winning hit broke Eric Thames’ heart

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Eric Thames felt like something bad was about to happen last fall after Michael A. Taylor reached first base next to him.

Milwaukee held a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning when Taylor was awarded first base after a review determined the call of hit by pitch would stand. The ruling was dubious. Regardless, Taylor was on first and the unraveling process for Josh Hader and the Brewers had begun.

“The playoffs is all about mojo and there’s certain plays you’re [like] oh, it's not looking good,” Thames told NBC Sports Washington. “And it was the hit by pitch to Taylor, reviewed it, hit off the knob, they reviewed said hit by pitch. We were all pretty upset about that. Once [Ryan Zimmerman] got the broken-bat single, it was like, oh, man here we go.”

Anthony Rendon sidled up to Thames after his walk loaded the bases later in the inning. Juan Soto was next, a left-on-left fight with Hader pending. He singled to right, sending the ball past Thames and toward Trent Grisham, who overran the ball after an odd hop.

“You know Juan is a passionate player,” Thames said. “You know he’s hungry to get the big hit. Once that ball went over my head, I was like, all right, here we go. Let’s hold it. Once that ball got past Grisham, my heart just like… the crowd was quiet the whole game until that moment. It was like bombs went off. We couldn't hear anything. I was leading off that next inning. It was the weirdest feeling. It was like my heart was in my stomach. It was heartbreaking.”

Thames struck out. The Brewers lost, beginning the Nationals’ stomach-churning run toward the World Series.

He was bitter for about four or five days. But, he watched. The Nationals kept coming back, he watched more. Stationed in a bar, still a bit upset by the idea this could have been the Brewers’ run, Thames began to develop an affinity for what Washington was doing, one that eventually landed him in the clubhouse this spring to split time at first base and provide left-handed, pinch-hit power.

“We all would have been pissed if the Astros or the 'powerhouse team,' if they won, but these guys came from the bottom, they scratched their way up, the way the games finished was exciting,” Thames said. “Like Howie’s home run off the poll -- I watch that replay all the time. To see the entire stadium in Houston just get quiet. Oh, it was awesome.

“I watched every game at a bar with a bunch of beer drowning my sorrows with nachos.”

Thames spilled his beer when Kendrick homered against Will Harris. Three-plus months later, he and Kendrick were sitting two chairs apart in West Palm Beach, Thames’ heart presumably back into his chest.

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