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Max Scherzer defies age the way he battles hitters: Relentlessly

Max Scherzer will turn 36 in July, but the sun does not appear to be setting on his career. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

So Max Scherzer has what he described as an “ailment,” and his latest Grapefruit League start was pushed back. Over the past eight seasons, no one has thrown more regular season innings. He added 30 more in October. He turns 36 in July. Cue the chorus. The end must be near.

“Everyone’s always like, ‘This is going to be the year when he starts to break down,’ ” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said last week in West Palm Beach, Fla. “And every year, you get to the second half, and you’re like, ‘Is he going to win the Cy Young again?’ He’s the Tom Brady of baseball.”

As he enters the penultimate season of a seven-year, $210 million contract that has been, by almost any measure, a bargain, Scherzer is at perhaps his most interesting juncture. His finishes in the National League Cy Young voting over the first five years of the deal: fifth, first, first, second and third. His ranks among starting pitchers over that period: first in innings, first in batting average against, first in strikeouts, second in walks and hits per inning pitched, third in ERA.

And yet, everybody — and every body — has limits. Forget the stitch in his side Tuesday that limited Scherzer to long-tossing as the Washington Nationals march toward their March 26 opener. Step back and ask the big-picture question that matters most: How long can he keep this up?

“I don’t know,” Scherzer said last week. “I feel great. My body feels great. I try to do as much as I possibly can to continue to build strength and get ready for the season. There’s days where I definitely need a day here and there to let the body recover, and I give it to it. I take rest when I can get it. But if I feel good, I go hard.”

Max Scherzer has an ‘ailment’ on his right side. He doesn’t have long-term concerns.

That last part rings so true: If he feels good, he goes hard. That thought kind of defines Max Scherzer. But does that commitment, that effort, mean the first five years of his contract can be replicated over the final two? Maybe that’s not a fair question.

“I don’t see how his first five years could be replicable,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “You have to really pick and choose who could replicate that at any age, any team, any era. You’re talking about some of the most elite performance in history.

“It’s a loaded question, because you don’t want to say, ‘He can’t replicate it,’ because it sounds like, ‘Well, man, he’s going to have a downturn.’ I think he’s going to have a hell of a season this year. He’s going to be a Cy Young candidate for the next two years. And after that, I don’t think his career is over.”

So the better question is: How can Scherzer continue to be the elite pitcher the Nationals need him to be to contend even as he approaches an advanced age? The answer lies in some combination of personality and preparation.

“The guy’s crazy,” fellow starter Stephen Strasburg said. “He really is.”

Like a fox. Take something as simple as playing catch, which Scherzer does between starts on the outfield grass. This is typical fare for a starting pitcher, whose four days off between appearances are carefully mapped out. Scherzer doubles down on any map, charting new courses as though he’s Magellan. With each simple toss in a game of catch, he signals to his partner what pitch he’s going to mimic.

“You kind of see these things, and guys might say, ‘Oh, that’s silly,’ ” Strasburg said. “But then the more you think about it, it’s like: ‘Huh. Okay. That makes sense.’ He’s reinforcing positive behavior. He’s reinforcing good execution. From afar, it’s like: ‘What’s he doing? Is he just messing around out there?’ No. He’s literally training his mind: Boom, curveball.”

Such detailed preparation has long been the backbone of Scherzer’s success and remains the reason teammates believe he won’t slow down now. Justin Verlander, Scherzer’s former teammate in Detroit who’s now with Houston, just placed second and first in the two most recent American League Cy Young votes, a period in which he posted a 2.55 ERA and a 0.85 WHIP. Verlander just turned 37. Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine — all had elite seasons well after tuning 35.

“It takes a special person to do it,” Zimmerman said. “A lot of guys would break down. But he is so calculated. It’s almost like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ And then you’re like: ‘Well, wait a minute. He literally practices and does everything harder and more calculated than other people do, and he’s just a little bit better at it than everyone else. Maybe he’s got it figured out.’

“That also takes commitment. It takes sacrifices. You can’t be like, ‘I’m going to do what he does,’ and then do it five days out of the week instead of seven. He’s all-in. It’s why he’s going to be in the Hall of Fame.”

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How much will the next two, or more, years enhance that Hall of Fame résumé? Despite the slight setback to his side muscles this week — “This is purely just a fatigue, endurance thing,” Scherzer told reporters in West Palm Beach on Tuesday — Scherzer is adamant that he knows how to prepare an aging body coming off an extended season.

“I understand the process,” he said last week.

And the truth is, even with the 30 extra postseason innings, he ended with 202⅔ in all for the 2019 season, a total he has exceeded five times in the regular season. He made just 27 regular season starts because of back issues, but he adjusted his offseason workout plan to account for them. Rizzo called him “a definite outlier who takes as good a care of his body as anybody I’ve ever seen.”

“He knows who he is,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “He knows what he wants to be. . . . For him, age is just a number. He feels just about as young as anybody.”

He is not as young as anybody. The beginning of the end for Max Scherzer has to come at some point. Maybe it was Tuesday, when he played catch rather than pitched. But no one with the Nationals is willing to make that bet. The end will happen sometime, but the end is not near.

For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.

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