Back in mid-February, as Max Scherzer was just beginning to throw baseballs again, albeit with a “modified grip”, Nationals’ skipper Dusty Baker acknowledged the real possibility that Scherzer might not be ready for Opening Day.
The 2016 NL Cy Young winner injured his ring finger last August, but pitched through the pain down the stretch, and discovered this winter that what was thought to be a sprain was a stress fracture in the knuckle of his right ring finger.
“Right now it’s just getting back out there and just throwing a baseball and getting my arm in shape,” Scherzer said then.
With the delay in his preparation for the 2017 campaign, Opening Day was in jeopardy even at that point.
“You’ve got to be prepared for that,” Baker told reporters, “and if it doesn’t happen, then I’m the happiest guy in the world.
“And if it does happen, then we’ve got to start looking at some options. We do have some guys that are chomping at the bit.
“You hate to lose Max for any period of time, but like I said, that’s just speculation as of right now, we don’t know, but you certainly have to prepare for that.”
Scherzer threw his first live batting practice this past Tuesday and reports on his work were positive, if still cautiously optimistic, considering he was still throwing his fastball with a modified three-finger grip rather than the tradition two-finger grip.
While he impressed in the 44-pitch session against live batters, Pitching Coach Mike Maddux said it would be important to see how he reacted afterwards.
"See how he feels tomorrow," Maddux said, as quoted by MLB.com’s Jamal Collier, when asked what the next step might be. “And have to entertain maybe a game."
Before Thursday’s Grapefruit League matchup, Baker said the decision on the next step was that Scherzer would throw another live bullpen session this Sunday, and take the next step to throw the equivalent of three innings after completing two last time out.
Looking at the path ahead now, and wanting to keep Scherzer on a normal progression as he ramps up for Opening Day, Baker once again acknowledged that the 32-year-old right-hander might not be ready in time for the season opener.
“Well, we’ve been thinking that all along, sort of,” Baker said, as quoted by MASN’s Pete Kerzel on Thursday.
“But we’re preparing for that. I mean, it’s hard to count Max out. It just depends on how he progresses the next few weeks. But if not, then we got a couple other candidates that are pretty good, too. So we’re glad that he’s made the progress that he’s made.”
Scherzer was the Nationals’ Opening Day starter in each of the past two seasons after he signed a 7-year/$210M free agent deal in the winter of 2015.
Before that, Stephen Strasburg started three straight season openers for Washington.
Will the Nationals be able to take advantage of the off days early in the season to give Scherzer as much time as he needs to build up arm strength for the season?