Updated at 5:03 p.m.
MIAMI — The odds of Max Scherzer making his scheduled start Tuesday night in Atlanta look slim after the Nationals ace was unable to throw Sunday morning without feeling discomfort in his right thumb, which he suggested is the byproduct of a sprained ligament.
Scherzer, who jammed the thumb while hitting during his Thursday start in Washington, threw on flat ground in the outfield at Marlins Park on Sunday morning and noted his thumb remained sore, though better than he expected.
Asked if he thinks he'll be able to start Tuesday against the Braves, the right-hander sounded pessimistic.
"I can't say that, because I'm literally day-to-day," he said. "I'm not ready to rule it out completely, but I also have to be honest with myself. Anytime you deal with an injury to your pitching hand, you literally have to be 100 percent to go back out there."
Speaking in the dugout a few minutes after he threw, Scherzer referred at different times to a "sprain" and to "ligaments," suggesting the injury is more severe than mild inflammation. He was adamant throughout that he'll err on the side of caution, not wanting to risk a more serious arm injury while compensating for the thumb ailment.
"I've dealt with an injury before in college where I had a cut on my middle finger, and I went back out there and pitched in pain," he said. "And two weeks later, I had biceps tendinitis and really almost kind of messed up my shoulder. I really respect the fact that you really have to be 100 percent to go back out there. And in this case, that's how I'm going to treat it."
Scherzer has not yet thrown off a bullpen mound, as he normally would between starts, but he said he doesn't necessarily need to do that before pitching in a game again. He does need to be able to throw all his pitches on flat ground with no pain, though, which means he would need to cross that hurdle Monday to have any chance of starting Tuesday.
"It's my pitching hand," he said. "Any type of discomfort's going to alter the way I throw the ball. If I alter the way I throw the ball, I can really run the risk of major injury to my arm. So I really respect that. I really respect that I have to be at 100 percent. That'll be my test: If I can throw all my pitches on flat ground at 100 percent."
Assuming Scherzer doesn't heal in time, the Nationals will have to decide how to proceed, both in the short- and possibly long-term. If they believe Scherzer will be ready in a matter of days, they could try to piece together Tuesday's game with relievers, then insert him back into the rotation.
"We'll probably have to make an adjustment on Tuesday; we don't know exactly who that is yet," manager Matt Williams said following Sunday's loss. "We'll get through tomorrow's game and see where we're at, but there are options for us.
One potential problem with a bullpen game is the fact none of the Nationals' current relievers has been stretched out to throw more than perhaps three innings at a time. Tanner Roark, the obvious rotation replacement candidate, hasn't thrown more than 12 pitches in any of his last three appearances.
If the Nationals choose to call up a starter from Class AAA Syracuse, the most likely option would be right-hander A.J. Cole, who is currently scheduled to start Monday and thus would only need to be pushed back one day. That move, though, would require somebody being removed from the current big-league roster, whether a reliever being demoted or Scherzer being placed on the 15-day DL.
For now, the Nationals don't expect Scherzer to be out that long.
"I don't know if Max is going to make this one," Williams said. "But I would not anticipate at this point — pending further evaluation, further days — that he'd miss a second one. But we'll see."