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For hot Nats, Max's return 'icing on the cake'

Scherzer goes four innings of one-run ball in first start off IL
@JakeCrouseMLB
August 23, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- It was an odd sight. Max Scherzer entered the dugout after recording a 1-2-3 fourth inning, but he didn’t reappear to start the fifth, nor was he spotted arguing hard in favor of staying in. It’s a new reality right now for Scherzer, who returned from the injured

PITTSBURGH -- It was an odd sight. Max Scherzer entered the dugout after recording a 1-2-3 fourth inning, but he didn’t reappear to start the fifth, nor was he spotted arguing hard in favor of staying in.

It’s a new reality right now for Scherzer, who returned from the injured list to pitch four innings of one-run ball in the Nationals’ 7-1 win over the Pirates on Thursday.

“He mentioned, ‘Hey, I can go out and get 10 more pitches,’” Washington manager Dave Martinez said. “And I was like, ‘You’re good. Good job.’”

Box score

Scherzer didn’t need much more convincing. He walked over to chat with catcher Kurt Suzuki and began the process of communicating how he felt to the training staff. It was a marked shift from Scherzer's mindset in his last start against the Rockies on July 25, when he threw 86 pitches, including 49 four-seamers that maxed out at 97 mph.

Soon after, Scherzer felt more pain in his back, and he again landed on the injured list.

“Given where we were at, I thought I could go out there and compete,” Scherzer said. “And I realized, ‘All right, this injury is trickier than anybody thinks.’

“So for me, even pitching tonight … look, I can’t go back and rear back and throw this thing as hard as I can. I’ve got to pitch. I’ve got to be controlled in my delivery and execute pitches rather than just rearing back and throwing as hard as I can.”

Even with the more contained approach, Scherzer’s velocity was not far off his usual marks this season. His four-seamer averaged 94.5 mph on the night, just below his season average (94.9 mph). However, Scherzer struck out only three of the 17 batters he faced, and Adam Frazier tagged him for a solo homer in the third inning.

The measure is not as much the start as it is how he feels the next day. Scherzer’s mild rhomboid strain didn’t flare up until his Colorado start was long over, and it cost him nearly a month away from game action.

“I feel pretty good post-start,” Scherzer said of Thursday’s outing. “But like I said, with this whole process of trying to learn what’s going on here, it’s the recovery.”

For now, recovery means sleep for Scherzer. If all goes well upon waking, the next step will be reloading and preparing his body to work more 100-pitch efforts. Martinez, head trainer Paul Lessard and pitching coach Paul Menhart kept a close eye during the start, and while Scherzer’s mechanics were good, they could tell that the outing took a toll physically.

“He’s a little gassed, which we figured he would be,” Martinez said, “but his intensity was like always, and he got through it. Hopefully, tomorrow he wakes up and he’s well recovered and we move forward.”

“That’s a product of what I’ve got to do in the weight room, of all the different exercises I’ve got to do to strengthen the whole area,” Scherzer said. “This is a good start, but I’m not out of the woods.”

Having Scherzer back healthy and active should help the Nats rely on the bullpen for fewer innings, but it may take time for that to actualize. In the meantime, Washington’s relief corps pitched five shutout innings on Thursday to lock down the win, with some helpful insurance on Howie Kendrick’s two-run homer that sparked a four-run eighth inning. Anthony Rendon also homered in the ninth for his 101st RBI of the season.

Trea Turner, who extended his career-high on-base streak to 29 games, is thankful the team isn’t in a position where it needs Scherzer to rush back. The Nationals have gone 9-2 in their past 11 games, fueled by an incredible amount of offense, and their rotation is holding strong.

“If we’re struggling and we need him to come back or rush back or whatever it may be, then yeah, I think it would be a big lift for us,” Turner said. “But we’ve been playing good baseball and, like I said, to add him in is just icing on the cake.”

And Scherzer’s tune-ups couldn’t come at a better time in terms of scheduling, as his first two starts back -- assuming he stays on track -- will be against two struggling offenses in the Pirates and the Orioles.

But for the moment, Scherzer is not worried about strength of schedule or strikeout totals. He just wants to be healthy.

“I can’t get hurt again,” Scherzer said. “That’s just the reality of this. … To prepare for a lineup and facing a team [where] those guys can hit, that was fun tonight.”

Injury notes

• Joe Ross threw a bullpen session on Thursday at PNC Park, which Martinez called “a good sign.” He tossed alongside closer Sean Doolittle, who has been on the 10-day injured list with right knee tendinitis since Sunday.

Ross’ spot in the rotation will come up Saturday in Chicago. Martinez instructed Erick Fedde earlier in the week to keep ready in case Ross is unable to go, but if Thursday’s bullpen went well, Ross should be on track to start.

• Ryan Zimmerman (plantar fasciitis in right foot) is continuing to work through a rehab assignment with Class A Potomac. Martinez said he’d like for the first baseman to get a Spring Training-like workload, somewhere around 25 at-bats.

“He felt good yesterday,” Martinez said. “Got a couple of hits, ran the bases. Now it’s just about getting him out there every day.”

Jake Crouse is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter @JakeCrouseMLB.