- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2017

Max Scherzer was six weeks behind when spring training began. He wondered when he would take the mound in the regular season. The Washington Nationals wondered if he was en route to the disabled list to start the season.

The stress fracture in a knuckle on his right ring finger had prevented him from taking steps in his annual throwing program. At spring training in Florida, he was initially working off to the side. His teammates moved onto the new bullpen mounds in groups. Scherzer was off schedule and out of the mix.

His recovery since has been rapid and significant. Scherzer moved through his throwing program, checking off pitch total marks and feeling no discomfort in his finger. The pain relief allowed him to return to a two-finger fastball grip. It also puts him in line to start Friday against the Philadelphia Phillies in their home opener.

“The fact that I was able to at least keep my arm going… I was able to long-toss, get through all my programs, get through the bullpens and here I am,” Scherzer said.

When he was introduced Monday during the Nationals’ home opener, cheers for the 2016 National League Cy Young Award winner boomed through the Nationals Park. Scherzer was later re-presented with his Cy Young Award on the field (he originally received it during the winter).

What he didn’t do was pitch. Stephen Strasburg started Opening Day. Scherzer wasn’t even second in the rotation. He has ended up fourth and will be going to the mound for the first time this season during a trip out of town.

“I’m so happy to be taking the ball,” Scherzer said. “We have a great team. So many great arms that can go out there and win ball games. I was going to watch the other four guys pitch at some point.”

Include Nationals manager Dusty Baker among the relieved. He was concerned about Tanner Roark, who threw 97 pitches in six innings Wednesday night, because Roark was also behind. His issue was not injury. It was the spring interruption of the World Baseball Classic. Pitching coach Mike Maddux had moved Roark ahead of schedule knowing that he would fall behind at the WBC. There was no such option with Scherzer.

“You don’t have spring training for nothing,” Baker said. “You need the innings. You need the competition. You need to get to a certain amount of pitches to be yourself.”

Scherzer is hunting for his fastball command. Even when playing catch, he’s tracking how he feels and his mechanics.

“Feeling the ability that if I’m in a 1-1 count, I throw a strike,” Scherzer said. “I know where the ball is going to end up. That’s been the difficult part. Keep going through spring training, finding that consistency. Now, it’s just a race to get to it.”

He pointed to his final spring training start against the Boston Red Sox at the Naval Academy as crucial. Boston delivered a regular-season lineup populated with players that helped the Red Sox lead the major leagues in runs last season. Scherzer pitched five innings against the Red Sox.

“I’m itching to get out there and see where I’m at,” Scherzer said. “I was actually really fortunate to face that tough Boston lineup. To get their full lineup. To really get grinded apart. When you get grinded apart in spring, those are the learning lessons that you need. You realize, ‘Oh, that was a mistake.’ Sometimes you face a Double-A kid who hits a foul ball and you don’t learn anything. Whereas, those guys can hit.”

On Friday, Scherzer expects to throw around 100 pitches. He thinks he will be fatigued near 90 — depending on how the game goes — and can grind his way close to triple digits. But, it’s the first pitch he will be most pleased about. He wasn’t sure when he was going to throw it. Turns out it will be released the first week of the season.

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