WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Last week, Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo went looking for Max Scherzer. He couldn’t find him. He told his coaches and clubhouse staff to tell Scherzer he was seeking him. Scherzer never came to find him.

Eventually, Rizzo peeked into the video room, just in case. Scherzer, the two-time reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, was sitting there alone, poring over video of Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto. Weeks before the Nationals open their season against the Reds in Cincinnati, Scherzer was preparing.

Scherzer will start Opening Day against the Reds, Manager Dave Martinez confirmed Monday. He hardly needed to confirm it at all. Scherzer has been lined up for March 29 all spring. He has started every Opening Day since he became a National in 2015 with the exception of one, last year, when a fracture in his knuckle set him back.

Asked when he made the decision to start Scherzer, Martinez said he chose him “the day I got the job.” In reality, the decision had long since been made for him. Scherzer is the ace of the staff. That day is his day. Big games are his games, at least when possible. Last year, he wasn’t ready to pitch Opening Day in April, or Game 1 of the National League Division Series in October. This year, he is healthy and pitching like a man on a mission most would have considered complete after the first or second Cy Young. The 33-year-old had allowed two runs on three hits in 14 innings this spring entering Monday’s start against the Miami Marlins. He had struck out 21 batters and walked two.

Monday, he struggled. He allowed three homers in five innings in which he threw 90 pitches — his targeted number. Neither he nor Martinez were concerned with results. Martinez confirmed Scherzer would still start Opening Day despite the stumble, and smiled as he did so.

“I actually liked that I got hit around. That was good,” Scherzer said. “…You need one of these outings when you kind of get beat around to know how you navigate a lineup and keep working through innings. You can learn from this, and that helps build you for the regular season. The only thing I’m mad about is walking the pitcher. That’s the only thing I’m mad about.”

Martinez revealed the rest of the Nationals’ season-opening rotation, too. Stephen Strasburg will start the second game of the season, as expected, which means he lines up for the home opener April 8 at Nationals Park. Gio Gonzalez will be the Nationals’ No. 3 starter. Tanner Roark will start fourth. And as for fifth?

“TBD,” Martinez said. A.J. Cole seemed the likeliest choice to open the season in that role until the Nationals  signed Jeremy Hellickson last weekend. Rizzo said Monday that Hellickson is “way behind” the rest of his starting staff and therefore unlikely to be ready to open the season in the rotation. He will likely remain in West Palm Beach until he has built up enough stamina to pitch in the majors, at which time he will take Cole’s spot in the rotation or pitch out of the bullpen.

Regardless of what happens with Hellickson, Rizzo was uncharacteristically unequivocal when it came to Cole’s fate.

“He’s going to make the team,” Rizzo said, explaining that Cole has too good of an arm to let it sit on waivers, which is where he would land if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster. Cole is out of minor league options, but the Nationals are willing to move pieces in their bullpen to maintain a spot for him. As of right now, the 26-year-old right-hander is not going anywhere.

Meanwhile, the Nationals are being increasingly forthcoming about the fact that second baseman Daniel Murphy will not be starting behind Scherzer on Opening Day. While neither Rizzo nor Martinez would say so for sure, both implied Murphy will not be ready March 29 and will probably start the regular season on the disabled list.

“We’re not at that point yet, but do out the math,” Rizzo said. “We’re not quite there, but we’re just about there.”

Rizzo said the Nationals want to be particularly cautious with Murphy because few major league hitters rely on their legs to power their swings as much as he does, so pushing him to put stress on his surgically repaired knee risks major implications for his performance. When he hit on the field during the past week, Murphy was noticeably upright, keeping his weight out of his legs and focusing more on his swing path.

“There’s not a hitter in baseball that utilizes his lower half more than him. That’s his whole key to hitting. It’s like a pitcher with a bad ankle. He’s got a bad ankle, so what does he do? He changes his mechanics and blows an elbow,” Rizzo said. “So a hitter that’s not using his legs when he’s used to using his legs, I don’t want him compensating for something else and either changing the way he hits or injuring something else.”

In other injury news, shortstop Trea Turner left the complex before workouts Monday to deal with an ingrown toenail, the same problem that kept star outfielder Bryce Harper out of the lineup for a few days earlier this spring. Martinez said Turner could be in the lineup again as early as Tuesday, and he isn’t concerned.

  • Adam Eaton and Michael A. Taylor played in their second Grapefruit League games since returning from injury Saturday. Eaton went 2 for 3 with a walk. Taylor went 0 for 3 and looked a little rusty pursuing a deep fly ball to center field he probably would catch in June.
  • Shawn Kelley returned from a few days’ absence for a family matter. The veteran right-hander surrendered two homers in an inning of work. After a strong start to the spring, Kelley has struggled in his last two outings, though he is healthy, which Martinez said was all that mattered to him.

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