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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