WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. — It was the first team workout of spring training for the Washington Nationals — a voluntary one, pitchers and catchers — but Max Scherzer was in midseason form.
He stood on the mound and barked out orders to catcher Miguel Montero about pitches, situations. “Keep the glove right there,” he yelled, and then fired a fastball right at the target.
This went on for maybe 20 or 25 minutes — about twice what you would normally expect from an early spring training bullpen session. And nearly every pitch — he threw 60 — was thrown with intensity and intention, in typical Max Scherzer style.
On Feb. 15, it was a must-watch baseball performance, and everyone around in a Nationals uniform stopped and watched.
“It’s just my normal routine of how I get ready for the season,” he said. “For me, I like to get on the mound, feel some fatigue and work through it. I see the benefits of that by the end of spring training.”
He said it was the fifth bullpen session he’s thrown. “I’d be really shocked if the other starters haven’t thrown five bullpens. You go across the league, most starters have thrown four or five bullpens. I don’t think there is anything new about that. I don’t think it’s anything new.”
AUDIO: Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon with Thom Loverro
I doubt if many — maybe any — pitchers around the league have thrown a bullpen session yet like the one we saw at West Palm Beach Thursday.
There was nothing normal about it. It was a definitive opening statement from the three-time Cy Young award winner.
It’s closing statements that have plagued Scherzer.
He nearly nailed one last October when, in Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Chicago Cubs, the ace starter entered the game in relief in the fifth inning with a 4-3 lead and quickly got Chicago’s two most dangerous hitters, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, out.
But Willson Contreras reached on an infield single, Ben Zobrist singled to left and Addison Russell doubled down the left field line, scoring two runs and giving Chicago a 5-4 lead. Then, after going 2-0 on Jason Heyward, the Nationals gave him an intentional walk. Scherzer, clinging now to a one-run lead, had two strikes on Javier Baez when catcher Matt Wieters let strike three get by, Baez reached first safely and Wieters throw went into left field, allowing Russell to score for a 6-4 Cubs lead, a game Chicago would go on to win 9-8 and eliminate Washington once again from advancing to the NL Championship Series.
There was nothing normal about that Scherzer performance, either.
“You still reflect on what happened in 2017 in a bitter way,” he said. “I don’t think that ever changes. I’ve had some gut-punching losses throughout my whole career. I’ve never been part of a team that has won a World Series. So every single year I’ve experienced some kind of gut punch at the end.”
He’s right. Scherzer, 33, has taken some body blows in the postseason — a 4-5 record in 16 appearances, including some memorable meltdowns. In Game 6 of the 2011 American League Championship Series against the Texas Rangers, Scherzer allowed six runs in 21/3 innings on the mound for Detroit in a 15-5 loss. In Game 1 of the 2014 AL Division Series against Baltimore, Scherzer gave up five runs in 71/3 innings in a 12-2 defeat.
“You just have to take it, learn from it and keep evolving as a pitcher” said Scherzer, coming off his second straight NL Cy Young season with a 16-6 record and 268 strikeouts. ‘I’m excited that hopefully I can stay healthy and see what I can accomplish in 2018.”
He likes his team’s chances to get back to the postseason. “We can play with anybody,” Scherzer said. “We’ve got pitching, hitting relief pitching. We’ve got young guys, old guys. We got a very good major league baseball club.”
I think Scherzer has evolved enough as a pitcher. All that is left is avoiding the body blows.
• Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.