September 20, 2020

Facing a Season of Uncertainty, Max Scherzer Is Still Tinkering

The last competitive game Max Scherzer pitched was the biggest of his life. And he was not about to let the designated hitter rule disrupt his routine before Game 7 of the World Series.

So Scherzer — who will face the Yankees on Thursday as baseball begins its 60-game regular season — did what he has always done when starting for the Washington Nationals: He took batting practice. Even though he wouldn’t be batting that night, since the game was being played in Houston under American League rules, Scherzer had to take his swings.

“I’ve done that for so long that when I got in the World Series, I wasn’t ready to break my routine yet,” he said by phone on Monday. “It’s one of the things I do to get my body going, to get loose and stretch out. For me, the hitting was just to stay active throughout the whole day, so I don’t just sit in air-conditioning and stay tight and turn it on all at once.”

Now, Scherzer will lead baseball into its strange new world as the Nationals’ opening day starter on Thursday. The opener in Washington will be the first regular-season game ever with the designated hitter in a National League park, a move intended to protect pitchers through a regionalized, shortened schedule that includes more interleague play. The A.L. has had the D.H. since 1973.

Scherzer is not sure if he will keep batting practice as part of his routine; he may substitute medicine ball tosses as a way to stay warm before taking the mound. However he gets there, the first pitch of a most unusual season will be in his hand, with a familiar opponent in the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole.

Scherzer beat Cole in the World Series opener last fall, but missed their scheduled Game 5 rematch with severe neck spasms. Cole won that night, and Scherzer stalked the bullpen in Houston in Game 6, ready to relieve Stephen Strasburg, if needed. Strasburg pitched into the ninth inning to extend the series, and the next day Scherzer ground through five high-stress innings (103 pitches) to help Washington clinch its first title.

ImageScherzer finally got to celebrate a World Series title last October. 
Credit…Elsa/Getty Images

Had the Astros won in six, Scherzer might have spent the winter ruing the worst-timed stiff neck in baseball history. Instead, he got his first championship ring in a career bound for the Hall of Fame, and baseball avoided the embarrassment of having the Astros — soon to be disgraced by revelations of an illegal sign-stealing scheme in 2017 — as reigning champions.

“The greatest thing is I don’t ever have to think about that,” Scherzer said, laughing at his personal what-if. “Everything was just meant to be. It worked out exactly the way it needed to work out.”

It was Scherzer’s first World Series appearance since 2012, with the Detroit Tigers. Between appearances, he fashioned a run of dominance few pitchers have matched: Scherzer has finished in the top five in Cy Young Award balloting in each of the last seven seasons, a streak equaled only by Greg Maddux and Clayton Kershaw since the award was first given in 1956.

He won it three times — in 2013, 2016 and 2017 — and led the majors in victories (161) and strikeouts (2,452) for the decade of the 2010s, to go with two no-hitters and a 20-strikeout game.

“As great as those things are, that’s not what motivates me,” said Scherzer, who turns 36 next week and is signed through 2021. “I don’t come to the park for all the other hoopla; I come to the park because I want to win another World Series with my teammates. To me, that’s the greatest motivating factor there is, and that’s really all I need.”

The Nationals will try to end baseball’s longest streak without a repeat champion; the last team to repeat was the Yankees, from 1998 through 2000. Washington’s star third baseman, Anthony Rendon, signed with the Los Angeles Angels as a free agent, but the Nationals retain the majors’ most imposing starting three in Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, who got an unexpected four-month layoff.

Credit…Alex Brandon/Associated Press

That should mitigate any lingering fatigue from October, but Scherzer is not counting on that theory to help the Nationals.

“I don’t know, you never know how these things unfold,” he said, adding that the pitchers had already tailored their training to prepare for another heavy workload. “I’ve pitched deep in the postseason many times and been able to respond the next year. So for me, it’s just identifying what you need to do with your body and routine to be able to handle that.”

Without fans in the stands, the Nationals will miss out on some of the communal trappings of life as a champion: the ring ceremony, the raising of a banner, the jolt in attendance teams almost always get after a World Series title. But the clubhouse bonds are strong, Scherzer said, and opening against a contender like the Yankees underscores the urgency of a short season.

The Philadelphia Phillies hit Scherzer hard in an exhibition on Saturday, scoring seven runs in his five innings, but Scherzer did not mind; he located his off-speed pitches for strikes, worked from the stretch and made it through 88 pitches.

The Yankees might not learn much from the game footage, either. Scherzer has thrived well into his 30s by constantly tinkering and evolving as a pitcher. With an extra four months to prepare for opening day, might he unleash a new pitch on the Yankees?

“Just watch,” he said.