CHICAGO — Of all the analysis of Max Scherzer’s right hamstring — how it feels, how it has been treated, how he has tested it, whether it will hold up under duress, what it had for breakfast — what matters most is perhaps the simplest statement Scherzer made Sunday: “I can’t wait to toe the rubber.”
Such eagerness is not guaranteed to be ingrained in the physically gifted. It should be, and in some cases is, evaluated as a tool. In scout-speak: plus velocity, plus command, plus . . . desire? If you’re going to spend $210 million on a pitcher, which the Washington Nationals did on Scherzer, it must be considered.
It’s instructive to look at the praise heaped upon Boston left-hander David Price on Sunday for his four-inning relief outing when the Red Sox faced elimination. That’s fine, because Price missed seven weeks with elbow and triceps soreness. He has battled with the Boston media, with TV analyst Dennis Eckersley — who happens to be a Hall of Famer — and with his own results. Any positive contribution, particularly when winter lurks, can be embraced.
But remember: The Red Sox didn’t pay Price $217 million to throw four scoreless frames out of the pen. They paid him $217 million — $1 million more than Scherzer for each of the seven years of his deal — to itch to take the ball in the postseason from the start. That was Scherzer, stirring in the dugout as Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez started Games 1 and 2 of this National League Division Series against the Chicago Cubs.
“I was chomping at the bit,” Scherzer said.
The bit, by now, must have molars imprinted on it. Game 3 on Monday afternoon at Wrigley Field, with the series tied at a game apiece, provides another pivot point. Scherzer is the fulcrum. His response: Bring it on.
“Max, he’s probably the most consistent personality guy,” Manager Dusty Baker said. Then he lumped in third baseman Anthony Rendon and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, also consistent.
Except those guys are flat-liners. Scherzer is all goosebumps and chatter.
“Sometimes, he’ll get on your nerves talking,” Baker said. “But if he’s not talking, then you miss it.”
Mike Rizzo, you may recall, drafted Scherzer. This was when Rizzo served as the scouting director of the Arizona Diamondbacks, not the general manager of the Nationals. This was when Scherzer was a junior at the University of Missouri, not a two-time (soon to be three-time?) Cy Young Award winner.
“He wasn’t a consensus guy in ’06,” Rizzo said Sunday. Some scouts questioned Scherzer’s unique delivery. Some said it was downright “bad.” Some said he’d end up in the bullpen.
“People said, ‘Why him?’ ” Rizzo said. “I said, ‘Because he attacks. He’s in total attack mode all the time.’ ”
When Scherzer was a free agent in the winter of 2014-15, Ted Lerner, the patriarch of Washington’s ownership group, asked Rizzo about Scherzer, whom agent Scott Boras was peddling. Rizzo’s assessment: “He’s our type of guy. He’s going to take the ball, come hell or high water, and he’s going to say, ‘I’m coming after you.’ ”
The hell and high water this week has been Scherzer’s hamstring, tweaked in the final start of the regular season — nine days before his playoff debut. And his analysis of this situation provides a glimpse into Scherzer’s relationship with his body. Turns out, they’re close.
“I found that part of my hamstring was weak,” Scherzer said. “And even though the whole muscle itself is strong, there is a rotational aspect to this that we were able to identify the weakness.”
For people who think “rotational aspect” refers to what’s spinning around on the dessert tray, this makes no sense. Scherzer studied it, and worked for a solution. He sprinted, to build endurance in the muscle. He and the athletic training staff came up with different weightlifting techniques to focus on that part of his hamstring. He wanted to pitch Game 1 — healthy or not.
“But you know how we treat pitchers here,” Rizzo said. “We care for pitchers — and players.”
Scherzer, though, cares for himself, and that’s part of the reason he is so eager for this start Monday. This season, he came out of a game in Miami — making that slashing motion across his throat, which ranks second behind only Bryce Harper’s tumble over the bag in welp-the-season’s-over moments for Nats fans — with a neck problem. He eventually ended up on the disabled list.
“I’ve kind of been dealing with this stuff all year long,” Scherzer said. “So this isn’t anything new, dealing with little ailments.”
Those decisions — the decisions not to pitch — might seem like the kind made by players who don’t want to toe the rubber at all costs, who don’t want to attack.
Not so. That was Scherzer building trust with the people who decide if and when he’ll get to pitch. That was Scherzer wanting the ball less in August than he would in October.
“I feel like, if you’re able to say no,” he said, “when you do say yes, that holds a lot more weight to it.”
He carries weight. This is, by now, a pitcher who has established himself as one of the best of his generation — one who received his massive payday, still the largest sum for a right-hander, and got better. There is desire in that, too.
Consider Scherzer’s ranks, in all of baseball, over the first three seasons of his seven-season deal: third in ERA (behind Clayton Kershaw and Jake Arrieta, the Cubs’ Game 4 starter), second in walks and hits per inning pitched (behind Kershaw) and first in innings pitched, strikeouts per nine innings and batting average against.
Say it again: In a world in which nine-figure contracts for pitchers rarely work out — and Price’s four-inning stint Sunday doesn’t lift the burden of his — Scherzer has been a good buy.
But he will only be a bargain if he comes through in the postseason. Last year, in the Nats’ five-game loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers, they managed to lose both games Scherzer started. But Scherzer knows what it means if he wins Monday: He could come out of the bullpen in Game 5, backing up Strasburg. Or — plug your ears, cover your eyes and scream — he could start Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.
In either case, he wants the ball. The rubber awaits. It has been a long time.