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‘I’m fundamentally against this’: Max Scherzer put off by pitch clock in Nationals’ spring opener

Max Scherzer delivers during his first spring outing, a two-inning appearance against the Houston Astros on Saturday night. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Max Scherzer didn’t like the pace of his first spring training start on Saturday night, and it was not because of the pitch clocks that ticked away in certain parts of the ballpark.

That’s not to say the Nationals’ ace has any fondness for the proposed time keepers, though.

“That was kind of weird, I mean, I just don’t agree with this pitch clock thing,” Scherzer said. “FiveThirtyEight wrote an article the other day talking about [how] the major pace of play problems is coming from the foul balls. Tonight you saw my outing, it seemed like it was kind of slow. And I didn’t have one missed pitch clock, right?

Scherzer started the Nationals’ Grapefruit League opener against the Houston Astros, their fellow tenants at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Scherzer, 34, went two innings, gave up a deep home run to leadoff man Jake Marisnick, and otherwise threw 44 pitches in a mixed performance. He struck out three, walked one, recorded a first-pitch strike to just three of the nine batters he faced and found a nemesis in the clock being pushed by Major League Baseball to shave seconds off games that are being criticized as too long.

Yet Scherzer’s results don’t matter on Feb. 23 — only preparing for the season does. And aside from seeing Scherzer, one of baseball’s best pitchers, fans were treated to an RBI single from left fielder Juan Soto, a line drive home run from third baseman Anthony Rendon, and Howie Kendrick’s return from a ruptured right Achilles’ that kept him out most of last season. The night ended with the Nationals winning, 7-6, on a walk-off single by infielder Adrian Sanchez.

Howie Kendrick, healthy again, is like another new face for Nationals

“There was some good and bad from this outing,” Scherzer said. “My fastball location was a little off, my tempo was a little off, I mean those are just between-year fixes that I can get back out there and . . . I need to pick up my tempo and that’s when usually everything sinks in, and my fastball location comes off that. That’s an easy nip in the bud.”

The pitch clock gave pitchers 20 seconds between getting the ball back from the catcher and coming set for their next offerings. A batter has to be ready at the five-second mark or he is given a strike. The pitcher has to be set when the clock hits zero or he is assessed a ball and the rule would not apply in the first pitch of an at-bat or after a foul ball. As talks continue on whether to implement the proposal, MLB has installed test clocks in minor league stadiums, with three inside the ballpark shared by the Nationals and Astros: one on the video board beyond right field, one on the face of the second deck and another on the padded wall behind home plate.

But they weren’t added without a hitch. As Scherzer worked through the first, the scoreboard operator couldn’t get the clocks to work correctly. They were all stuck on nine seconds and, at first, wouldn’t reset. But the problem was soon fixed, and 20-second countdowns began in earnest, if only a batter or two behind schedule.

It is preseason for everybody.

“I know as players that’s something that MLB is trying to negotiate, I don’t think there’s a negotiation here,” said Scherzer, who is the Nationals’ Players Association representative. “It just shouldn’t be in the game. Having a pitch clock, and if you have ball-strike implications, there’s no clock in baseball. And there’s no clock in baseball for a reason. That’s my thoughts.”

Everyone has their own spring training routine, and most include taking incremental steps toward the regular season. When Nationals Manager Dave Martinez played, he had the same plan for each spring training opener. In his first at-bat, he took a strike. In his second at-bat, he took the first pitch. Then in his third at-bat he was ready to hit, whatever the count, hunting a fastball to drive up the middle.

This time of year is relaxed like that, but not always for Scherzer. He starts his offseason throwing program on Dec. 1, and traveled down to West Palm Beach at the start of the year. By the time pitchers and catchers reported Feb. 13, Scherzer had already thrown a handful of bullpens while waiting for his teammates to arrive. His first official bullpen session included grunting and grinning and gamelike situations like pitching to an invisible right-handed hitter in a 2-0 count. And each mock at-bat ended in a strikeout.

With Max on the mound and Soto at the plate, it’s starting to look like Nationals baseball

Scherzer believes in throwing just about all the time, all year round, so his arm never has a chance to wilt. And it hasn’t. He led the National League with 18 wins, 220⅔ innings and 300 strikeouts (a career high) last season, and a 2.53 ERA helped him finish second in Cy Young voting to New York Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom. Before facing the Astros, Martinez was asked whether Scherzer starting Saturday was a good indication that he’d be on the mound Opening Day.

It’s almost tradition for teams to hide their Opening Day starter, however jokingly, until the regular season approaches. But Martinez couldn’t do that with a straight face. And since the Mets have already announced that deGrom will go for them, two of the world’s best pitchers should be squaring off on March 28 at Nats Park.

It’s unclear if they’ll be on the clock that day. MLB has not ruled out implementing the proposal for the 2019 season.

“I have tunnel vision. When I’m on the mound I have tunnel vision and all I see is the catcher,” Scherzer said. “[The pitch clock is] there, I don’t know, now having to actually throw to it, I think it’s more of a distraction than anything. I get that there are parts of the game that we can clean up and I think there can be meaningful changes, but I’m fundamentally against this.”

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