WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The price of greatness can be destruction. Max Scherzer, the pitcher who stalks the mound like he wants to bite the ball, has gotten closer to the edge than he wants.
Ever since Scherzer arrived in training camp a month ago, he has been worried. At times, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner even has been scared. For seven months, he has been perplexed and alarmed by an injury to his ring-finger knuckle that caused him pain whenever he used a normal two-finger fastball grip.
“I don’t feel it in any other activity or pitch, just my fastball grip,” Scherzer explained. Which would be like Einstein saying he got dizzy only if he tried to think.
To eliminate pain during his bullpen sessions for the final two months of 2016 and all of this spring training, Scherzer invented a bizarre three-finger fastball grip that no one in baseball uses.
Because no one throws such a pitch — putting a third finger on the top of the ball cuts velocity — no one knows whether it might lead to an arm injury. For every other type of pitch, there is a library. For a “three-finger fastball,” there is a blank page.
On Thursday, Scherzer and his Washington Nationals finally saw what they hope is the beginning of a resolution to a mysterious injury that has chilled the entire organization. In a minor league game, the Nationals’ $210 million arm used his traditional two-finger fastball nine times in 54 pitches. No pain of any kind.
“Now I feel back,” he said, giving the outing a positive tilt.
Scherzer will miss an Opening Day start but hopes to be ready in the season’s first week and not miss a turn in the rotation. But he also told the rest of the truth.
“I’m still day-to-day in terms of how the finger recovers,” he said. “Even though I had a great day today, I have to make sure all the ligaments recover. I have to make sure I didn’t overdo it, make sure I do all my treatment so that, man, I don’t have to do this again. Because that was not fun.”
Nationals fans can’t relax yet. Scherzer, who normally throws 55 percent fastballs, some up to 98 mph, trusted his knuckle enough to throw his best pitch just nine times.
For now, he remains a daily reminder of how precarious his profession is, with a constant balance between professional toughness and detached good judgment. How tricky is that? In his final 11 starts of last season, two in the playoffs, Scherzer pitched with mind-over-pain and adrenaline. But perhaps because of that tough-it-out mentality, what was diagnosed as a “strain” in August turned out to be a stress fracture of a bone in the knuckle after a January X-ray.
Is Scherzer playing with fire? It’s one thing to pitch with pain in a pennant race and use a wacky grip in your bullpen sessions when the stakes are so high. But why push this spring? Why not just wait for “no pain,” then ramp up from zero even if it means missing April or May, too? Why all these three-finger fastballs to build up arm strength so that he won’t miss any starts this season?
Scherzer would like everyone to understand his decision because he doesn’t believe that people outside the game grasp how normal and necessary such adjustments are for all players. Pain, risk and adaptation are just part of his life. And so he is listening to his body, making a tough choice, then crossing his fingers.
“When you pitch, you’re always right at the edge of your physical limits. You’re like a racecar driver going 200 miles an hour into a banked turn,” Scherzer said. “You have to push, push, push. But if you push just a little too hard, you crash. You spend your career finding that balance.”
You can understand an animal only in its natural habitat. Sometimes, humans, too. To sense why Scherzer is considered a complete competitor, a fierce, stalking force of a performer who may end up in the Hall of Fame, we need to see him in the context of his game — not the pastoral fiction but as it’s really played.
Few baseball fans grasp the need to play through pain that is so sharp that it lives at the very edge of injury. A hard heart runs through this deceptively pleasant game. If the sport has a daily subtext, it is that deceitful ache that refuses to say whether it is the precursor to a major injury or simply a test of grim professional fortitude. Major league players are aware of it every day. Who has it? Who can bear it and adapt to it without damaging himself badly? Or, on the other hand, who fights against the hurt too hard and cripples his entire career?
How many in a crowd of 30,000 know the big league gold standard for toughness? Jayson Werth didn’t learn it until his rookie year. With the Dodgers in 2004, he watched teammate Adrian Beltre play most of the year with bone spurs in his left ankle. Every time Beltre swung and missed, his weight landed on that leg as he spun.
“He’d scream, ‘AARGH!’ [and] kick his front foot in the air from the pain and fall down,” Werth said. “But he toughed it out, found a way to play — every day, all year. I thought, ‘Okay, I get it. This guy is what it’s all about up here. Awesome.’ ”
Beltre played 156 games, hit 48 homers and finished with 121 RBI.
Manager Dusty Baker said of one of his Nats, “I don’t know how he plays with everything he has in that wrist — plates, screws, nuts. It’s been broken, then had surgery three times. But he does it. People are depending on you.”
He was talking about Werth.
When he was young, Baker was told by Satchel Paige, “Stay out of the training room. Don’t let ’em see you in there.” So Baker bought medical equipment for his home to doctor himself. “Except for the 35 cortisone shots,” he said. Did he play in pain much? “The last 10 years,” he said, after knee surgery left a foot-long scar.
Where did Baker learn this code? “When I was a rookie, Hank Aaron would limp into the clubhouse walking like Fred Sanford. He’d sit at his locker looking at a newspaper. But his eyes wouldn’t move,” Baker recalled. “I asked [teammate] Ralph Garr, ‘What’s he doing?’ Ralph said, ‘Hank is thinking away pain.’
“In the game, Aaron would run like nothing was wrong. But when he walked out of the ballpark, he looked like Fred Sanford again,” Baker said, shaking his head, then repeating to himself, “ ‘Thinking away pain.’ ”
The reason you don’t hear much about this is because the people who can endure it are also the people who don’t talk much about it. Scherzer never talked about any problem last year. Until pitching coach Mike Maddux mentioned it to me for this story, you didn’t know Scherzer used a three-finger grip between starts last year.
“What Max has been doing, that’s straight ‘throwback’ right there,” Baker said. “Like Aaron always said, ‘You find a way.’ ”
What if, a week or a month from now, Scherzer’s knuckle starts to hurt again? What if the strain or even the stress fracture reappears? No one knows exactly what caused it or aggravated it — no one can remember a baseball player who has had it — so how can they know what might bring it back? Or worsen it?
The human elbow and shoulder were created, it seems, to self-destruct whenever a pitcher asks his tendons and ligaments to work in some peculiar, unproven way. Scherzer knows it. He understands his body, every kinetic chain in it, and has made decisions about when to push and how hard his whole life.
It’s central to his baseball identity. He will live with consequences, good or not.
As Scherzer walked into the Nats’ clubhouse this past week, someone wisecracked, “Here comes ol’ Mordecai [Three Finger] Brown.”
Scherzer dropped his hand to his side, grinned and imitated the three-finger grip that Brown, a Hall of Fame pitcher who lost parts of two fingers in a farm accident in his youth, might have used more than a century ago.
If we want to link up Max and Mordecai, feel free — both old school, hard nosed or, maybe, just battling to make the best of what they’ve got. If the pitching elders could overcome the malice of farm machinery, surely Mad Max can pitch through a sore knuckle.
At least that’s what the Nats devoutly hope.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.