WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — For the first time in 2017, Max Scherzer faced batters with an umpire behind home plate and fielders backing him Sunday morning. It was only a simulated intrasquad minor league game on one of the back fields at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, not inside the stadium itself, but it represented another step, if small and measured, forward in his recovery from a stress fracture in a knuckle on his right ring finger.
Scherzer threw 28 pitches across two innings and didn’t allow a run. He faced three players in the Nationals’ big league camp: Jose Lobataon, Raudy Read and Wilmer Difo.
“Max tells you a lot in his body language,” said Nationals Manager Dusty Baker, who watched Scherzer pitch from a golf cart behind a fence along the first base line. “I don’t know how pleased he was, but I know he didn’t seem disappointed, which is equally as important. The main thing is we want him to feel good. If he feels good, Max is going to be Max.”
Pitching coach Mike Maddux watched Scherzer perform from behind a screen behind home plate with General Manager Mike Rizzo and Bob Boone, one of Rizzo’s assistants, and concluded that Scherzer didn’t hold back. The reigning National League Cy Young Award winner threw each of his four pitches for strikes with typical velocity and finish. There was at least one difference: Scherzer continued throwing his fastball with three fingers, instead of two, to avoid irritating the ring finger while continuing to build arm strength.
“I liked everything we saw,” Maddux said.
Next for Scherzer, according to Maddux, is pitching in a minor league game Friday, giving Scherzer four days of rest without throwing a bullpen in between because of his light workload Sunday. That game will be against another organization’s minor leaguers — Maddux said he didn’t know which and which level — but it will remain a controlled setting. The right-hander is slated to pitch three innings and, if all goes well, a Grapefruit League game could follow.
“He’ll be good to go and get him on schedule,” Maddux said.
That Grapefruit League game could be on March 22, at the earliest, if he’s given four days between outings again. That would give Scherzer 12 days until Opening Day.
“Ideally, we just want him to feel ready,” Baker said. “He’s a little bit behind but not as far behind as it looked like he was going to be at the beginning. He’s back on pace I think.”