Max Scherzer stepped out of the Nationals Park bullpen at 2:57 p.m. Tuesday, into the thick heat of a muggy afternoon, and was closely trailed by an entourage. Out came pitching coach Paul Menhart, bullpen coach Henry Blanco, head athletic trainer Paul Lessard and bullpen catchers Nilson Robledo and Octavio Martinez. Scherzer was in full uniform. Martinez was in full gear to catch him.
There was a game to play in the evening, between the Washington Nationals and Cincinnati Reds, but two simulated innings felt much more important. Scherzer had thrown 31 pitches in the bullpen, soon threw 32 more to live hitters across two fake frames and added 24 warmup pitches between innings. He told Manager Dave Martinez afterward that he felt good. Martinez, watching from the dugout, was just happy to see his ace back on the mound.
“Seeing him throw in the sim game, I was a little amped up myself, that he’s another step closer to recovering and coming back,” Martinez said. “That’s a good sign. I’m going to worry about the game today, focus on the game, and then hopefully tomorrow we get good news and he feels good.”
That has been the key throughout Scherzer’s recovery from lingering shoulder issues: tomorrow. He has often felt good throwing — on flat ground, in the bullpen, in a one-off start against Colorado on July 25 — but the truth is told in the morning. Scherzer felt fine after facing the Rockies, his only start since July 6, but he woke up with pain in a new spot. That led to the third diagnosis since the all-star break: First it was a mid-back strain, then bursitis in the scapula below his right shoulder blade. He is on the 10-day injured list with a mild rhomboid muscle strain. Scherzer has received a cortisone shot, and a stem-cell shot, and now he, Martinez and the organization wait to see how he recovers from Tuesday’s simulated game.
The 35-year-old right-hander had been on a tear before his back flared up following a late June start in Detroit. The Nationals are making sure his next return is for the rest of a pennant chase.
“It’s difficult because he wants to go, go, go. But he understands where we’re at right now,” Martinez said. “The way we go about it is to say this is for your future, too. We got to make sure that you’re right. And he gets it. He fights a lot of things, but he’s at the point now where he just wants to get better, and he wants to get back out there and help us win.”
The simulated game drew a lot of attention, and for good reason. Martinez was joined by first base coach Tim Bogar on a bench in the dugout. Pitchers Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Rainey and Austin Voth lingered nearby. The stadium’s grounds crew paused its work and watched from the visitors’ side. Howie Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman and Gerardo Parra were the hitters who faced Scherzer. And Aníbal Sánchez was the required DJ.
Scherzer doesn’t like to do anything halfway. He throws his between-starts bullpen sessions in full uniform. He runs the bases like a position player. He wanted normal walk-out music — “Still D.R.E.” by Dr. Dre — before the “first inning” on Tuesday, so Sánchez followed him to the mound while it played through a handheld speaker. Then Sánchez turned on “Baby Shark” when Parra came to the plate, and that got a laugh out of the otherwise serious Scherzer.
As the two innings unfolded, Scherzer reset counts to throw certain pitches in mock situations. He walked Kendrick, struck out Parra and Zimmerman, then got Kendrick, Parra and Zimmerman to all fly out. He brought Zimmerman back to the plate to throw a 1-2 fastball, and the first baseman whacked it into the left field seats. Scherzer was even kind of enough to issue a warning before testing out his slider.
“Watch your foot,” he said while Parra dug into the batter’s box.
“What do you mean?” Parra asked.
“I want to be able to throw this pitch without breaking your foot,” Scherzer responded. Then he threw a bouncing breaking ball and Parra gave him a thumbs-up.
Martinez is not sure what the next step is. He is waiting for Scherzer to report Wednesday and will map a plan from there. When asked whether Scherzer could go straight from a simulated game to a real one, Martinez wasn’t sure. He added that Scherzer won’t come back and throw 100 pitches in his first start. The Nationals will monitor him closely, from here on forward, to make sure he is healthy enough for the stretch run and whatever comes after.
After throwing eight final warm-up pitches, Scherzer walked off the mound, removed his hat and wiped sweat off his forehead. He gave a swinging glove tap to Octavio Martinez, the bullpen catcher, chatted with Dave Martinez and Lessard in the dugout, then ducked into the tunnel and out of sight. The next step could be a side session Thursday. But Martinez is not counting on anything until he hears the overnight results.
Cincinnati Reds (56-61)
Jesse Winker LF
Joey Votto 1B
Eugenio Suarez 3B
Aristides Aquino RF
Josh VanMeter 2B
Nick Senzel CF
Jose Iglesias SS
Kyle Farmer C
Alex Wood P
Washington Nationals (63-55)
Trea Turner SS
Victor Robles CF
Anthony Rendon 3B
Juan Soto LF
Howie Kendrick 1B
Brian Dozier 2B
Gerardo Parra RF
Yan Gomes C
Joe Ross P
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