WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Around 1 o’clock Thursday afternoon, a roar wafted over to the minor league practice fields, where Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo and Vice President Bob Boone heard it.
“Who hit it?” Boone asked, and someone nearby informed him that Bryce Harper had just hit his sixth home run in 27 spring at-bats.
“Got lucky,” he joked, before turning his attention back to Field 4, where something more important had drawn Boone, Rizzo and others away from the Nationals’ eventual 3-1 win over the New York Mets at the stadium. The draw was Max Scherzer, who was pitching against Mets unknowns with a two-fingered fastball in a back-field game that would not normally attract such a crowd.
But that Scherzer threw three innings there, after being limited for months by a slow-to-heal stress fracture in his right ring finger, represented a big step forward for the Nationals’ ace.
“It’s good to be back to the normal grip. From here on out, I’ll obviously be progressing that way and dialing it in to really try to pitch with the fastball again,” Scherzer said, before a sigh of relief consumed the first few words of his next sentence. “Now, I feel back.”
Scherzer spent the first month of spring training maneuvering around soreness in the bottom knuckle of his right ring finger, the unexpectedly important joint to which pressure seems to funnel whenever he grips his fastball. To avoid disrupting his throwing program, Scherzer experimented with a three-fingered fastball grip, one he said he was willing to use in games if absolutely necessary.
Neither Scherzer nor his pitching coach saw much difference between the two fastballs, so much so that Mike Maddux could not tell exactly how many two-fingered and three-fingered fastballs Scherzer threw during his three innings of work Thursday. But Scherzer said he was able to rely more on the two-fingered grip than he has at any point this spring, though he did mix in a few three-fingered fastballs. He also spotted his curveball for strikes, and struck out one hitter on the kind of perfectly placed change-up he throws in late August.
“The shape of all five pitches were there,” Maddux said. “We just got a little challenged with the strike zone at times, which first time out you can understand that.” First inning was real sharp, eight pitches I was like man this, we got to get some work in.”
After an eight-pitch first, Scherzer walked two and hit another in the second, when he allowed two runs on a bloop single and threw 30 pitches. The Nationals called that inning before Scherzer got three outs, thereby giving him the chance to sit and start another inning. They would not have had that option in a real Grapefruit League game, as much as Scherzer seemed to want to pitch in one of those instead of on the adrenaline-free back fields a few hundred yards away.
Occasionally, his fastball sailed, up and to his arm side, and Scherzer admitted the ball felt “like a cue ball” — slicker than usual, particularly in that second inning. But where his fastballs landed Thursday meant little compared with how they left his hand, most often from that two-fingered grip, the one he had not been able to use consistently yet this spring. All told, he threw 54 pitches, enough to convince Maddux he can pitch in a real game six days from now, which is currently the plan.
Scherzer does not know whether he will need to use that three-fingered grip between starts, so as not to put too much pressure on his knuckle as he works his way back. He still considers himself “day-to-day,” still needs treatment, still needs to make sure his ligaments are strong and the finger is not suddenly sore.
But he can slide back into the Nationals’ rotation now, and the reigning Cy Young Award winner did the math. If he starts six days from now, pitching every five days or so, the 32-year-old figures he has time for three more spring training starts.
“That’s 70, 85, 100 [pitches],” Scherzer said. “I should be progressing at a pretty good clip now to allow myself to find a way to be able to start the regular season.”
If Scherzer were to pitch every five days after that scheduled start next Wednesday, he would make the third of those three starts in the final exhibition game the Nationals play the weekend before their regular season opener. If he does that, he will not be ready to start on Opening Day, like he has for the past two seasons. Scherzer would not even speculate on his availability for the opener. His manager Dusty Baker, asked if his ace would be ready to start on the afternoon of April 3, said, “at this point, probably not.”
“We’re just trying to get Max on the field,” Baker said. “Opening Day? I’m sure it’s important to him, but not as important as the rest of the season. After Opening Day, then what? Then you’re on second day.”
Second day, second month, and second half are the reasons Boone, Rizzo and the rest abandoned the big league game to come watch Scherzer on Thursday. Whether he pitches April 3 does not matter nearly as much as whether he pitches in April at all. After he let go of 54 promising pitches and a big sigh of relief Thursday, Scherzer is on track to do just that.