VIERA, Fla. — Max Scherzer was throwing his first bullpen session of the season, already grimacing at imperfect pitches, when new pitching coach Mike Maddux headed his way. One more minute of work, then two pitchouts, Maddux told his new ace. Fifteen or so minutes of throwing is plenty for a mid-February day.
“Three more,” Scherzer told him and kept honing, tracking the count and asking catcher Wilson Ramos to call balls and strikes. Maddux checked back a few pitches later.
“Three more,” Scherzer insisted. He may not be stomping around the mound just yet, but a few days into spring training, the Nationals’ likely Opening Day starter’s intensity is intact.
Scherzer said he reflected on last season, on his two no-hitters and a few near-misses, his career-high 228
“I was really proud. . . . It was a career high in first-pitch strikes and a career low in walks. I really attacked the zone at a really high rate last year,” Scherzer said. “. . . That’s something you look at early in spring training to see if I can get back on that program of absolutely on the attack.”
But Scherzer was on the attack in July and August, when National League hitters seemed to solve him for a stretch. They riddled him with home runs and sent him to more losses than anyone expected. After all, Scherzer was the two-time National League pitcher of the month, a Cy Young Award winner facing a league unfamiliar with his stuff.
“He was getting ahead of them. Then the league adjusted to him, and then he had to adjust back to them,” Manager Dusty Baker said. “. . . Most of the time, when you don’t know a pitcher, I think advantage pitcher. . . . So this is going to be a period of adjustment. But he studies.”
Scherzer threw live batting practice Wednesday, his third officially sanctioned mound work of spring training. Clint Robinson hit a ball to the center field fence, but oohs and aahs and the hits that inspire them do not matter to Scherzer right now. He is experimenting so he can adjust.
“You’re trying to find situations where you’re going to use your pitches differently. I might use my curveball in a different situation,” Scherzer said. “. . . You don’t want to keep doing the same thing because hitters will figure out that pattern and beat you, so you have to try to keep doing new things.”
Scherzer did not always rely heavily on a curveball, which he started honing in Detroit. Now it is an important part of his arsenal against left-handed hitters, whose swings tend to be more dangerous against sliders than curves. Last year, he began working on a cutter, an adjustment he expects to become more effective — like that curveball did.
“It always takes three years to learn a pitch, and now I’m in year two of it,” Scherzer said. “I’m going to continue to learn new things I can do with it, and try to find which situations it works best in, and see if I can find some new situations where I can throw it. Like I said, for spring, that’s what you look forward to trying to find out.”
Baker said everyone from Joe Ross to Stephen Strasburg can keep learning from Scherzer, whom he sees as a lead-by-example type. In Scherzer, relentlessly calculated and endlessly competitive fuse into an obsession with improvement that one might think would leave little time for tutoring. But after 10 minutes of catch with Ross during the first workout last week, Scherzer walked off the field, shoulder-to-shoulder with the 22-year-old, sharing suggestions about his stride.
“I’m kind of in a different role now. Now I’m 31. Now I’m the old guy on the staff,” Scherzer said. “Now I’ve got to help these young bucks out, but I’m fine with that. For these guys, I know what it’s like to come in the major leagues and the mind-set they have and the mind-set they need.”
Part of that mind-set, of a starter’s maturation, is understanding how to pace himself and prepare. Scherzer maintains he never got tired last season despite the deluge of high-stress innings his frequent no-hit bids required. More strikes and fewer walks helped reduce the strain.
Scherzer has thrown at least 180 innings for six straight seasons and made at least 30 starts in seven straight, enabled in part by dogged conditioning. This winter, he did more cardio on bikes than he had in the past, biking while his shepherd mixes ran alongside for five or six miles almost daily.
“I’m always a guy that’s trying to push and see how much more I can take,” Scherzer said. “. . . There’s times where they’re outpacing me.”
Scherzer threw a no-hitter in his last outing of the 2015 season, which means he has the unique opportunity to throw no-hitters in back-to-back starts, six months apart. That will not happen, Scherzer said. Too many pitches, too early in the season. Pitching deep in games in April makes it harder to do so in September. Better to limit early than falter late.
Then again, Scherzer always wants to throw a few more.