“I was just running and doing intervals and sprained my [left] ankle,” Scherzer said Friday from West Palm Beach, Fla., recounting a conditioning drill from about two weeks ago. “It is what it is. I’ve had this before. I had the doctors all look at it, and they all think the ankle is fine, especially long term. I’ve just been dealing with some inflammation in the joint, kind of lost some mobilization in the ankle, and that’s kind of been the problem.
“So that’s prohibiting me from getting off the mound. But fortunately, through all this, I’ve been able to keep my strength up, and my arm is ready to go.”
Because of that, Scherzer expects to be on the mound soon. Exhibitions begin Feb. 28. The season begins April 1. For a half decade now, he has led the Nationals into Opening Day as their unquestioned ace. In 2021, with Washington looking to bury last year’s 26-34 finish, he will anchor a rotation that lines up Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester behind him. The Nationals’ strategy and payroll is built around this group. Scherzer is still at the center.
But 2020 showed cracks in his usual dominance. That could have been the circumstances — odd schedule, the starts and stops — or a sign that he’s declining. It could have been some combination of the two. Either way, in the final season of his seven-year contract, Washington needs Scherzer to be, well, Max Scherzer. Recovering from the ankle sprain is just a starting point.
“I saw some things I did well in 2020, but I also saw some things I didn’t do as well in 2020 that I thought kind of compromised me in some different ways, that I think if I can kind of correct, correct mechanically, that’ll help every pitch play out a little bit better,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting out there on the mound to see if I’m right and getting to facing hitters to see if it’s right as well. So, yeah, I’m champing on the bit to do that.”
Scherzer often stops short of detailing his scouting report on himself. His well-documented logic is that opposing hitters may see an interview and pick up a tiny edge. That’s the sort of meticulousness that shows in every part of his process: the video he watches, the pitches he throws, the running he does between starts. That’s what makes him Max.
In recent years, though, nagging injuries have interrupted his routines. He missed six weeks in 2019 with a string of back and shoulder problems. He later was scratched from Game 5 of the World Series because of neck spasms. But he pitched Game 7, gutting out five innings, and made mechanical tweaks last winter to avoid further problems. He since has had a minor groin strain and this ankle sprain. That’s generally better than any pain in his right elbow, in his right shoulder or around his neck.
“We all know Max. Max is going to be ready,” Manager Dave Martinez said Friday. “I don’t worry too much about Max. I know he’s getting a little older. We talked to him a little bit about his routine and maybe taking things a little bit lighter. But you know, Max is Max. He competes. He competes with himself and wants to be the best.
“I don’t want any other issues because you’re favoring the ankle,” Martinez continued, relaying his conversation with Scherzer. “So let’s get it right before you get on the mound.”
Max is Max is Martinez’s favorite way to describe his star pitcher. It means, above all, that Scherzer will give the Nationals a chance to win. It also means he has unique ways of making that happen.
The question now is how long that sentiment — that Max is Max — will be true. He gave up 9.4 hits per nine innings last season, his highest rate since 2011. His 1.3 home runs allowed per nine were his most since 2011, too. His walks were a tick up. And his velocity didn’t always rise toward the end of his starts, a departure from the late-inning grittiness that could one day go on his Hall of Fame plaque.
The sample was tiny and could very well be an aberration. For the Nationals, for the last guaranteed season with Scherzer in their uniform, that’s the hope.
“Knowing what your arm feels like and being able to get off the mound, get your work in and most importantly recover so your arm feels good the next day,” Scherzer said of what he’s focusing on. “So when you hit those check marks, that’s when you can increase your workload. That’s the same thing I’ll be doing this year, hopefully sooner rather than later.”