About a half-hour into the Nationals’ otherwise quiet workout Tuesday afternoon, cameras suddenly pivoted toward right field, where Max Scherzer began playing catch on flat ground. Given the uncertain status of his “tweaked” right hamstring, this qualified as a good sign, a noteworthy maneuver.
But the more noteworthy event took place a few yards behind him in the Nationals’ bullpen, where Stephen Strasburg was throwing in the background. Strasburg usually throws a bullpen two to three days before a start. Game 1 of the National League Division Series begins in two days, Friday night at Nationals Park. That Strasburg was throwing a bullpen, then, suggested that he would be ready to start then. No one would say so, of course.
“We really haven’t decided exactly — we have a couple days to decide,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “Stras threw a ‘pen. Max is supposed to throw one, hopefully, tomorrow. We’ll see. And then we will make a determination sometime prior to game time.”
The Nationals almost certainly will announce their starter Thursday, which is when the Game 1 starters for both teams generally address the media in an MLB-sanctioned news conference. When asked Tuesday, Strasburg declined to speak to the media, citing an already scheduled availability sometime soon. The Nationals clarified that all starters have such pre-start news conferences. Maybe it’s nothing.
But Scherzer himself reminded reporters that a starter could start Game 2 and also pitch Game 5 on regular rest. A successful bullpen Wednesday would probably leave him on a good schedule to start Game 2 Saturday. A successful bullpen is not a given, however. Scherzer admitted that he feels the hamstring trouble — not pain, but something wrong — when he throws a baseball at 100 percent. So he can run, jump, lift weights, play catch, and do any number of things that would suggest he is completely ready for a start this weekend. Pitching seems to be the only problem.
“That’s where I said this is confusing because it only shows itself when I’m actually throwing a baseball near 100 percent,” Scherzer said. “That’s where we’re trying to do everything we can to treat it and strengthen it and do everything we can to make sure when I do get off a mound and when I’m pitching, that this is going to hold.”
With the words “going to hold,” Scherzer indicated some degree of concern about the ability of his hamstring to withstand playoff stress without becoming a bigger problem. A full-on hamstring strain (or tear) would obviously limit Scherzer far more than this “tweak” he felt in his last start Saturday. Pushing him too hard, too soon, could result in a bigger injury that compromises the rest of his October. Waiting a few days at the front end — like, perhaps until Game 3 Monday in Chicago — could be a safer bet. But to anyone wondering whether he would appear in the first round at all, Scherzer was direct.
“Oh, I’m pitching in the NLDS,” Scherzer said, laughing in a way that indicated the absurdity of the notion that he wouldn’t. “I’m pitching in the NLDS.”
If Strasburg pitches Game 1 and Scherzer Game 2, the Nationals could bring back Strasburg on short rest for Game 4 with a fully-rested Tanner Roark as insurance. They could also pitch Roark in Game 4, then have their pick of Strasburg or Scherzer in Game 5. Either way, pushing Scherzer out of his regularly scheduled Game 1 appearance does not exactly doom them.
Still, a more severe injury to Scherzer’s hamstring would be far more damning. But while they could hold back Scherzer during the regular season, he will likely not take well to an overabundance of caution now. As of Tuesday, his fate for this weekend’s games at Nationals Park seemed entirely dependent on his bullpen session Wednesday. Strasburg’s immediate future seemed far less uncertain.
News and Notes
— The Nationals sent home four players who were with them at the end of the season as a means of paring down their travel party before the playoffs. Injured pitchers Koda Glover and Erick Fedde left the team, while reliever Austin Adams and outfielder Andrew Stevenson also headed home. Infielder Stephen Drew, meanwhile, headed to West Palm Beach for workouts in case he can return for later rounds.
Among those on the playoff roster bubble, Victor Robles, Rafael Bautista, Alejandro De Aza, Brian Goodwin, A.J. Cole, Edwin Jackson, Enny Romero, Matt Grace, and Joe Blanton will stay with the team. Cole, Jackson, Grace, Romero and Sammy Solis threw live batting practice to Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Matt Wieters, and Michael A. Taylor Tuesday.
— Goodwin rejoined the Nationals after spending the last week playing in simulated games in West Palm Beach. He ran the bases at full speed and took batting practice with the team. Goodwin would seem a candidate for the final outfield spot on the Nationals’ bench, if he proves he is healthy.
“He was able to do everything baseball-related,” Baker said. “I wanted to get a look at him today, tomorrow and Thursday and make a determination.”
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