WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Washington Nationals hosted the Boston Red Sox at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Tuesday afternoon. The game, a 5-3 Red Sox victory, attracted an announced attendance of 6,071, the largest in the week-long history of the stadium. The majority were Red Sox fans.
But Tuesday’s real draw, at least for Nationals staff, took place at 10:50 a.m. on Field 1 on Washington’s side of the complex in front of a couple dozen fans, while Manager Dusty Baker, General Manager Mike Rizzo and former ace Livan Hernandez looked on intently from behind the batting cage. They were there to catch a glimpse of Max Scherzer throwing live batting practice and facing batters for the first time since Game 5 of the National League Division Series. With less than a month until Opening Day, it was an important checkpoint in his return from a stress fracture in his right ring finger.
“Things looked right,” Scherzer said, “and that’s what I’m going to just hang my hat on.”
Scherzer, by all accounts, appeared as close to his typical self as one could expect by March 7, despite throwing a three-fingered fastball, a pitch he’s never thrown in a game in his life, to avoid aggravating the fracture. Every so often, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner would punctuate one of the 44 pitches he threw with a grunt to break the silence. It was just live batting practice, but Scherzer only knows one level of intensity and that is to the maximum, grunts included.
“I think he was happy about it,” Baker said. “It’s hard to tell when Max is really happy.”
Scherzer faced six hitters — Spencer Kieboom, Yadiel Hernandez, Sheldon Neuse, Nick Banks, Carter Kieboom and Raudy Read — across two simulated innings. He threw 23 pitches in the first inning and 21 in the second, alternating with recently signed Joe Blanton, who also was facing batters for the first time in 2017. He mixed in the modified fastball with the rest of his pitches, which do not require modification to compensate for his injury, while throwing to his new battery-mate, Matt Wieters, who was catching a pitcher against batters for the first time since signing with the Nationals on Feb. 24.
“Everything looked good,” Scherzer said. “Doesn’t look like there’s any difference between throwing two or three [fingers]. Everything looks good. Fastball looks like there’s [velocity] there. I don’t know what it was but everything looks good.”
Said Baker: “It looked the same. I couldn’t tell if he was using three fingers, and I was seeing if I could really see it on the ball. But his arm speed is such where you really can’t pick it up.”
Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux said the 32-year-old Scherzer showed signs of fatigue after the break between innings, which was expected, and his command subsequently dipped in the second inning. But he surrendered just one piece of solid contact, to Read, who launched a line drive off the fence in left field.
“I liked what I saw,” Maddux said.
Scherzer declined to detail his next step, but Baker said it could be a simulated game; Maddux later acknowledged it could be a Grapefruit League contest. Maddux said his goal is to have his starters pitch six times in spring training, going from two to six innings and back down to four over the course of the spring. But he admitted Scherzer doesn’t have enough time to complete the program and would need to use the beginning of the regular season to continue building arm strength. Having Scherzer use the modified fastball grip to pitch and improve his endurance — instead of being idle until the discomfort completely subsided — has made being ready for Opening Day a possibility, but it remains an uncertainty.
“We’ll see how many starts we can get out of him,” Maddux said. “And like I said, we’ll know more moving forward.”