CHICAGO — About 10 hours after the Washington Nationals reached their hotel in Chicago on Sunday morning, Max Scherzer stood in right field dripping in sweat, knees bent, as if leading off first base. An imagined pitcher reared and fired, and Scherzer broke for an imaginary base in deep right-center, visible only to him.
Then, suddenly, the trance ended. The reigning National League Cy Young Award winner straightened up and put his hands on his hips, staring into the Wrigley Field ivy and catching his breath.
Nationals starters don’t run sprints, and they don’t often practice running the bases. They don’t skip across the outfield like Scherzer did Sunday. They don’t get in a crouch and practice their starts, like a track runner might. They don’t play catch with half a leg kick, intended to get their back legs used to handling the weight.
But this is the way Scherzer deals with injuries at this point in his career, with a thorough commitment to detail that does not always find harmony with his competitiveness. This week, the Nationals had to lay out every scenario for Scherzer, convince him that two extra days would help him more, remind him that pitching Game 3 left the door open for a Clayton Kershaw-esque relief appearance in Game 5.
Scherzer will make his first start of the 2017 postseason Monday afternoon in Game 3 of the National League Division Series against the Cubs, two games after he probably would have started had his right hamstring not tightened up in the last start of the regular season — and one game after he wanted to start before Nationals trainers and management talked him into two extra days of rest.
“It was a process of going through every scenario and weighing the risk versus reward, knowing that I probably wasn’t going to be able to pitch Game 1,” Scherzer said. “And that by pitching Game 3, that gives us a couple extra days to build strength into my leg.”
Those sprints are a part of rebuilding the strength. Weakness in the hamstring caused the trouble.
“Even though the whole muscle itself is strong, there is a rotational aspect to this that we were able to identify the weakness,” Scherzer said. “Trying to train through that.”
Scherzer normally runs long distances — miles at a time — with such vehemence that whenever younger pitchers try to tag along, they stumble into the clubhouse stricken with exhaustion and drenched in sweat.
But in the days since the hamstring injury, Scherzer has spent at least a half-hour per day in right field, practicing his running mechanics, going through the type of exercises a sprinter might.
“Doing some sprint work to help try to build the endurance in that hamstring because that’s our biggest concern,” Scherzer said. “I think that I’m very confident as soon as I toe the rubber that, hey, I’m going to be good on pitch one. It’s how long can I go without re-injuring this?”
Sprint work mimics the explosion Scherzer generates with his back leg when he pitches. The more he can sprint, the more that leg is trained to burst — and, presumably, the more stress it will handle on the mound. And Scherzer is confident it will handle the stress Monday.
“I needed a couple extra days to get this right,” Scherzer said. “I feel I’ve done everything I can to put the strength in the leg that I need to, and I feel like I’m good to go.”
But what ultra-competitive pitcher wouldn’t say something like that? What ace wouldn’t look his manager straight in the eye — with both blue and brown eyes gleaming — and fib a bit for a playoff chance? Scherzer, who has spawned a thousand GIFs with his passionate requests to stay in games, certainly seems the type to push through trouble.
“I’ve always been very straightforward when you start dealing with injuries,” said Scherzer, whose understanding of the perils of tempting the kinetic chain began in college, when he pitched through a finger injury and it led to bigger arm trouble.
“You always have to communicate with the trainers and the manager and the pitching coach exactly where you’re at,” Scherzer said. “. . . there’s been times where I definitely have said, ‘Hey, I’m not good to go in this particular instance.’ Because I feel like if you’re able to say no, when you do say yes, that holds a lot more weight to it.”
Nationals Manager Dusty Baker always talks about his base runners, how some will call themselves safe on every play, rendering their judgments less-than-helpful when determining whether to challenge a call. Others do not argue very often. When they do, he challenges. Credibility counts.
And while Scherzer has a history of pitching through injuries, like the broken knuckle he pitched through late in 2016, he also has a clear rubric by which to determine if he should do so.
“The most important thing is how you can deliver the ball and making sure that you stay through the ball because if anything happens at the release point, that’s when. . . ” Scherzer trailed off for a second.
“I’ve gotten really good about feeling if the release point is different. If there’s anything different in that release point, really, you’re putting yourself at risk of seriously injuring your elbow or your shoulder.”
As of Sunday, Scherzer feels he can repeat his usual release point, that three-quarters-ish delivery that makes his fastball jump at hitters. That fastball will probably jump even more in the afternoon shadows Monday.
Scherzer would rather have pitched Friday or Saturday. If the Nationals didn’t have Stephen Strasburg, perhaps they would have pushed Scherzer sooner, taken a bigger risk, or something like that. Because they have Strasburg, they didn’t have to. They convinced Scherzer — whose eagerness to help the team can often be quantified in high decibels — that he would serve them best by waiting. He convinced them that he would not hurt them by pitching.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations of what, if anything were to happen, just the contingency plans of what the communication needs to be and how far they would let me go,” Scherzer said. “. . . if I stay within my mechanics and throw the ball right, I fully intend to throw a hundred pitches.”
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