WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Max Scherzer will throw his second bullpen session of the spring Monday, when many of his teammates head to Jupiter to play the Cardinals. Most of his fellow starters will be five or six bullpen sessions or live batting practice outings into their spring work by then. Scherzer, who has trouble sitting still when fully healthy, let alone when medically unable to participate, does not want to fall further behind.
But his right ring finger continues to ache from the lingering effects of a stress fracture in the joint. He can throw with three fingers, as opposed to the preferred two, and used that grip to play 300-foot long toss late last week. He can throw his secondary stuff without much trouble. But while Scherzer has been adamant that he will not push through pain — because pain can lead to compensating and compensating can lead to serious injury — he grew visibly impatient through the first two weeks of spring training. So the reigning Cy Young Award winner decided if he could not risk pitching through pain, he would find a way to work around it.
So instead of maddening games of catch, Scherzer chose to throw a limited bullpen Saturday. Instead of using two fingers for his fastball, as is and has been customary for major league starters for decades, Scherzer used three. That simple modification removes the pain, allowing Scherzer to maintain his delivery and build season-ready arm strength despite the surprisingly troublesome knuckle injury.
Because Saturday’s session was a success, Scherzer will throw another Monday. If the pain in that knuckle goes away, Scherzer will resume using his normal fastball grip. If it doesn’t, Scherzer will continue to build up with that three-fingered grip. He did not rule out using it in spring training games, where results do not matter and the environment is almost entirely within his control.
As strange as that plan sounds, it should allow the 32-year-old to build up as he normally would, without falling too far behind. Scherzer has not yet missed a turn in spring training starts; Tanner Roark will start his first game Monday and Stephen Strasburg has yet to appear. While it is likely Scherzer will fall a start or two behind, spring training begins earlier this year to accommodate the World Baseball Classic and that should allow him plenty of time to get to full strength — assuming the pain in his ring finger finally dissipates. Doctors have told him that pain is to be expected as a stress fracture heals. Scherzer, the most eager of the Nationals’ starters, is not waiting around in the meantime.
Meanwhile, newly signed catcher Matt Wieters continues to ease into Nationals duties. Dusty Baker said the 30-year-old will not play in games for at least a week and will spend the intervening days catching bullpens and getting to know his new pitching staff. Sunday, while the rest of his teammates took ground balls, Wieters wandered through the 14-pack of mounds with catching coordinator Michael Barrett, observing Stephen Strasburg, Joe Ross and Koda Glover’s bullpens and getting a crash course on the organization points of catching emphasis.
Rookie catcher Pedro Severino caught Ross on Sunday, though he will not catch in a game until later this week at the earliest. Severino is still dealing with right shoulder inflammation that cropped up during winter ball this offseason. He has been participating in offensive and defensive drills without obvious trouble.