WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Max Scherzer joked about the home run he surrendered — a sure sign that while baseball is back on the diamond, it’s still early in spring training.
Dansby Swanson sent a fastball from Scherzer over the left field wall, keeping it inside the foul pole for the lone blemish against the Washington ace in a 9-3 win over Atlanta on Sunday.
In the clubhouse not long afterward, teammate Shawn Kelley pointed his phone at the ultra-competitive Scherzer, mimicking reporters with their voice recorders. Kelley playfully barbed his teammate, asking what went wrong on the homer.
“That’s great,” Scherzer said, laughing. “Get them out of the way.”
In his first outing of the spring, Scherzer quickly dispatched six of the seven batters he faced, striking out three of them.
He sped through two innings, needing only 23 pitches, 17 of them strikes.
“For a first outing, you really have no adrenaline in a spring start for your first one out,” Scherzer said. “I was able to at least put a foundation in of establishing off-speed in the zone and working off of that.”
The lone mistake he made came when challenging Swanson with a 1-0 fastball.
“It was up and in,” Scherzer said. “I was tying to go down and away.”
First-year Nationals manager Dave Martinez entered the day looking forward to sharing a dugout with Scherzer, rather than coaching against him.
Coming off his second straight Cy Young Award and third overall, Scherzer didn’t disappoint.
“Awesome,” Martinez said. “He went in there, got his work done, threw strikes. That’s what he was worried about. First outing and he felt good, so I’m very pleased.”
Martinez wanted Scherzer to throw about 40 pitches, which is still significantly fewer than the 60 or so he’s been tossing in camp bullpens.
Despite only achieving about half his projected total, the 33-year-old Scherzer elected not to throw any extra pitches on the side.
“It’s amazing, once you put a real game out there and you put somebody with a different uniform, everything gets turned up a little bit,” Scherzer said. “I’ll be sore tomorrow even after 23 pitches just because I was even a little tired after coming in after warming up in the bullpen. That’s the part of spring that you’re building up - pitch count, getting up and down.”
So is pitching while tired.
“You want fatigue early in spring training so that you can work through it and you can continue to work on your pitch counts because that’s when you build that stamina.”
This time last year, Scherzer was dealing with a stress fracture in his ring finger, a condition that caused him to alter the grip on his fastball to give the finger more time to heal.
Scherzer returned to his normal grip once the season started, delivering what the Nationals have come to expect from one of the best pitchers of his generation, winning 16 games, pitching to a 2.51 ERA in 200 2/3 innings and striking out a league-high 268 for the NL East champions.
Health is not a concern for Scherzer this spring.
“I’m not battling my body right now,” he said. “I feel great. My arm feels great. I’m going out there on my normal routine, getting ready for the season. Right now it’s getting all your pitches in the zone and working ahead in the count.”
NOTES: Washington 3B Ryan Zimmerman expected to make his 2018 Grapefruit League debut on Sunday, but Martinez scratched him from the lineup after the veteran complained of overall tightness. “I said, Look, you don’t need to play,” Martinez said. “Do your daily stuff, do your routine and we’ll regroup in the next day or two. You’re going to get plenty of at-bats, so just take your time.”
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