- - Wednesday, August 21, 2019

PITTSBURGH — Paul Menhart’s first full month as the Nationals pitching coach came in June when ace Max Scherzer was named National League pitcher of the month.

The very next month saw Scherzer make only two July starts and just as many trips to the injured list.

Therefore, Menhart will be watching very closely when Scherzer is slated to return to action Thursday night against the Pirates.

Scherzer has been on the injured list since July 29 with a mild back muscle strain after an earlier stint for his back issues in early July.

Itching to get back into live game action, Scherzer walked past reporters Monday after a bullpen session and said, “See you Thursday,” implying he was ready to return to the rotation.

Manager Dave Martinez grinned when asked Wednesday if Scherzer was still on schedule to return.

“He gives us an opportunity to win every fifth day,” Martinez said, adding, “We have to keep an eye on him. We have to be smart about this.”

Since the All-Star break, the Nationals are 21-15. All but one of those games — an 8-7 loss to the Colorado Rockies July 25 — have been without Scherzer on the mound.

The Nationals have maintained throughout Scherzer’s injury that it wasn’t just about the pitcher feeling better, but that he also had to feel good the day after working out. Part of the problem was that Scherzer would pitch, only for his back to lock up again the next day.

As a result, the Nationals plan on easing their ace back into the fold. Martinez said this week Scherzer could throw around 75 pitches, and Scherzer said he realizes he won’t throw as many pitches as a normal outing. He has averaged about 105.6 pitches per start this season.

Menhart will be keeping a close eye on the most basic signs, but most of all “that he is healthy, period.”

“We are going to monitor his pitch count,” Menhart said. “I don’t know what the hard number is.”

Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, was having another strong season before his injury. The 35-year-old is 9-5 with a 2.41 ERA in 20 starts, with 189 strikeouts in just 134 1/3 innings. Opposing batters have managed to hit just .215 against him.

This will be the first season the intense competitor will not make at least 30 starts since his rookie year with Arizona in 2008.

“He is an interesting guy to deal with,” Menhart said. “He is a little bit impatient, with good reason. He wants to get out there. He wants to help this team win. We let Max be Max. The special ones are usually the Hall of Famers.”

Perhaps speaking for the prevailing sentiment in the Nationals’ clubhouse, catcher Kurt Suzuki was among those excited for his star teammate to return.

“It’s time to get him back on the mound,” Suzuki said. “He has been waiting for a long time. Whenever you have the best pitcher in baseball, it is a big boost for anybody.”

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