“You don’t really rate spring training,” Scherzer said. “It’s either are you ready or are you not. I’m ready.”
That decisiveness was absent last year, when Scherzer’s readiness was one of spring training’s pressing story lines. He didn’t pitch in a spring training game until March 22, and when he finally pitched he threw three-fingered fastballs to avoid aggravating a fracture in his right ring finger.
The ailment didn’t force him to begin the season on the disabled list as he initially feared, but it did push his first start to the Nationals’ fourth game. He proceeded to allow two runs across 6 2/3 innings on a chilly, windy Philadelphia afternoon and, eventually, earn his second straight NL Cy Young Award with a 2.51 ERA and 268 strikeouts in 31 starts despite a few injury scares. In other words, he was still Max Scherzer, still dominant, still determined, still intense.
There weren’t any reservations hanging over Scherzer this spring. Scherzer reported completely healthy to camp in West Palm Beach, Fla. If there was any need for proof, he provided plenty by beginning his spring with a 60-pitch bullpen session. He simulated various scenarios and became angry with himself when he failed to execute. His rookie manager observed with amazement.
“He already had gotten eight guys out, and I was sitting there thinking, ‘This is Day One,’ ” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “He was just jacked up about his side [session].”
Scherzer made every Grapefruit League start, six in all. He surrendered two runs over 14 innings in his first four. Then he allowed 10 runs, including four homers, across 12 innings in his final two outings. The results on either end of the spectrum are irrelevant. He utilized those starts to work on different aspects of his craft — above all, sharpening his off-speed repertoire — regardless of game situation.
“He looked good,” Nationals catcher Matt Wieters said. “He looked ready. He looked in midseason form. He works as hard as anybody, but last year he was having to figure some things out being able to get his work in with his finger. … This year, it was a different mind-set for him.”
The mind-set carries an unquestioned belief that somehow, someway, someone who has won the last two NL Cy Young Awards and three Cy Young Awards in five seasons can get even better. Scherzer wouldn’t disclose where he envisions improvement in his performance, unwilling to publicize his plans because, well, other teams read. Wieters provided a vague overview, staying away from any possible telling details.
“He’s going to keep refining his consistency,” Wieters said. “Last year, he was the best pitcher in the National League, but he knows he didn’t make every pitch perfect. And with his mentality, until he makes every pitch perfect the whole season, I don’t think it’s going to stop with him.”
That relentless hunt for perfection will begin Friday at Great American Ball Park, one day later than anticipated because of Thursday’s rainout. After last year’s interruption, it’ll be the third time Scherzer steps on the mound for Opening Day in a Nationals uniform. While Stephen Strasburg would surely earn the right for most teams across the majors, Martinez said choosing Scherzer for the assignment was about the easiest decision he’s had to make in his new job. It was obvious because his ace is healthy and undoubtedly ready.
“Things are different when it’s the regular season,” Scherzer said. “Lights are on. Everybody grips the bat a little bit tighter. This is when everything gets real.”
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