Major League Baseball players are just like you and me, version 726: When Adam Eaton saw Max Scherzer take himself out of last Tuesday’s start in Miami, his heart hiccuped, and then he considered the worst.
“There’s panic in the dugout, too, because the first thing you think about is shoulder or elbow or whatever,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “I mean, whoever’s watching that game panicked.”
That feeling tickled sternums from Washington to Waldorf to Woodbridge. Eaton had a cure for his heartburn: He immediately texted Nats trainers and learned that Scherzer had just slept on his neck wrong, that nothing serious was amiss. (Maybe it was the hotel pillows, Baker suggested Monday night.) Nats fans had to wait slightly longer, until the everything’s-fine update arrived about 25 minutes after Scherzer’s exit. Still, it took six days until the ace added some heft to that assurance by returning to the mound Monday night and looking almost exactly like Max Scherzer in a 3-2 win over Miami.
By the time he threw his final pitch against the Marlins at Nationals Park — finishing off seven five-hit innings with his ninth strikeout — you’d have to be a special sort of pessimist to still worry about a stiff neck. After a third-inning single, Scherzer even tried sliding back to first to avoid being doubled up. It’s a wonder he didn’t go in head-first. Or neck-first.
Anyhow, we can probably remove that particular body part from the list of active fears over the final 50-some games. Scherzer has now thrown the most innings in baseball over the last seven years, and over the last six years, and over the last five years, and over the last four years. He took a screaming line drive off his leg this season, writhed around the ground in agony and then stayed in the game. Baker said before Monday’s game that “It’s not hero time yet, so we’ve got to take care of Max”; then Scherzer powered through 114 pitches, talking his way into throwing the seventh inning. (“I’m 1,000 percent sure that I’m good to go for the seventh,” he told his bosses.) He seemed about as panicked as a bag of clay.
“It wasn’t bothering me today; it was just a little weak. My neck’s just a little weak,” Scherzer said. “I’ve just got to stay on top of it, just do the football exercises and just strengthen my neck up. It’s really not a big deal.”
Fine, fine. Just don’t expect this to be the final panic of the summer. Or of the week. There’s still another injured starter yet to show he is okay, and until Stephen Strasburg logs a night like this, there will be mini palpitations with every update. Maybe Strasburg is a few days away from a quality start of his own. Or maybe his right arm is being prepped for amputation.
Partly this is because the Nats remain suspended in this strange waiting room of a season: almost assured of a division title, unlikely to catch the Dodgers for the best record in the National League, unlikely to fall below the Cubs or Brewers. That leaves fans with at least two options over the next few weeks: enjoy this casual march to an NL East title in a relaxed stupor, or live in terror of something going wrong. Many will opt for terror.
It’s not like there isn’t some history arguing in favor of fear. Ryan Zimmerman’s hamstring strain in the summer of 2014 cost him more than 50 games and turned him into a pinch hitter in a first-round playoff loss. Wilson Ramos’s anterior cruciate ligament injury last fall ended his Nationals career and left Washington shorthanded in a first-round playoff loss. And it was around this time last year when Strasburg reported right elbow soreness, leading to a “precautionary” stint on the disabled list that wound up ending his season.
Scherzer’s pain in the neck arrived with Strasburg back on the DL, again for precautionary reasons, having left a game late last month with “achiness” in his forearm. (The Nats would take one look at those Lannister soldiers incinerated by Drogon and put them all on the 10-day DL for precautionary reasons. The Nats would dig up the remains of a 430,000-year-old proto-Neanderthal and put him or her on the 10-day DL for precautionary reasons.)
This injury, like so many others, has been described as no big deal. “We think he’s okay,” Baker said of Strasburg. “He actually looks very at ease and at peace,” Baker said of Strasburg. “He will only miss one turn,” Baker said of Strasburg. Well, Strasburg’s now approaching his third missed start. Not sure how many Nats fans feel very at ease and at peace.
But pro athletes often navigate the news cycle with a tad less frenzy, and so even Eaton — who admitted to that moment of panic watching Scherzer walk off the mound — stressed the lack of stress.
“We know where we are in the race and can plan accordingly,” he said. “We don’t ride the roller coaster. We’re on the ground and we try to stay even keel. We don’t want to ride that. You guys can ride it, but we can’t afford to.”
“No panic whatsoever,” Tanner Roark said. “I’ve played catch with [Strasburg] multiple times. And he’s been throwing it pretty far and pretty well. He’s making sure [the achiness] doesn’t come back, so he’s ready to go the next time he comes out.”
Chill out about Scherzer and about Strasburg?
“Oh yeah,” Roark said. “Click cancel on all the panics.”
It’s a nice thought, but it won’t happen, not until Strasburg can replicate what Scherzer just did. Not even then, probably. One concern was snapped into place this week, the same way a chiropractor snapped Scherzer’s neck. There will be others.
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