Ever since Max Scherzer’s knuckle began to feel better, the Nationals penciled him in as their third starter. The math simply did not permit him to start any sooner with adequate preparation. But April 6 was a more reasonable target. Scherzer and Manager Dusty Baker both said he would probably pitch then, instead of Opening Day.
But when the Nationals announced their season-opening rotation Saturday, Scherzer was not scheduled for Thursday. Instead, he will start against the Phillies on Friday, a day later, on an extra day of rest. The announcement came after Saturday’s exhibition game at the U.S. Naval Academy, in which Scherzer threw 91 pitches in five innings, so Baker was not available to provide an explanation. But the move does not seem like a reason for concern, but rather a simple change of plans aimed at lining the rotation up better down the line. Stephen Strasburg, who will start Opening Day, will be on turn for Saturday. Moving Scherzer to Friday puts the Nationals’ aces back in their normal order, with Scherzer preceding Strasburg.
Scherzer labored somewhat Saturday against the Red Sox regulars, who fought him nearly every at-bat, fouling off more pitches than Scherzer has seen a team spoil all spring. He struck out four and walked a batter, and had more than one between-innings conversation with pitching coach Mike Maddux.
“They grinded out some ABs and those are professional at-bats, up and down the lineup. Plus the DH, no pitcher so they grind out everything,” Scherzer said. “So that’s as good a start as you’re going to face in spring training to get you ready for spring training. So I feel like I took a step forward today in terms of getting back in the zone.”
Gio Gonzalez also pitched Saturday. The lefty had not pitched since March 26, and without an outing Saturday could have gone 10 days between outings. He threw 1 2/3 innings, allowed two hits and struck out one. More importantly, perhaps, he maintained the pace he established during an uncharacteristically efficient spring, one in which he seemed to vanquish his demons of deliberateness as he threw strikes and worked quickly. Gonzalez finished his spring with a 2.74 ERA and a 0.86 WHIP. His career WHIP is 1.32.
With Gonzalez set to pitch Thursday and Scherzer Friday, the Nationals do not need a fifth starter until Sunday. Joe Ross is their fifth starter, and no one has indicated otherwise, but when asked about plans to get Ross some work between the end of spring training and his first regular season outing, Baker deflected, and said he had not talked to Ross about his plans and therefore could not share them. One inference would be that Ross will not spend that first week on the big league roster. The Nationals could option him to Class AAA Syracuse, then recall him for his start, therefore clearing up a roster spot for an extra reliever or bench player to start the season. As of Saturday, both Michael A. Taylor and Wilmer Difo understood they had made the Opening Day roster. Those two would join the presumed bench of Stephen Drew, Chris Heisey, Adam Lind and Jose Lobaton to make a six-man bench, one more than the usual number. Perhaps Ross’s spot will provide the extra room.
For now, the Nationals’ plans are not clear beyond next Friday, when Scherzer will make his first regular season start against the Phillies in their Citizens Bank Park opener.