Scherzer preparing to face 'stiffest' NL East

After falling short in NL Cy Young Award race, Nats ace starts spring with intensity

February 14th, 2019

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- It is becoming something of an annual spring tradition here in Nationals camp: The high-intensity first bullpen session of the spring for .

In truth, it's not the "first" bullpen, because Scherzer has been throwing since ... well, he never really stopped throwing. He played catch throughout the offseason, just a few times a week to keep his arm loose, before he began to ramp things up at the start of January. But this was the first formal bullpen for Scherzer as Nationals pitchers and catchers held their first official workout together on Thursday. He took the mound alongside fellow starters , and . :: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

As usual, it was Scherzer who commanded the attention. He began working the count to imaginary batters, grunting and swearing at himself for any pitch not located where he wanted. By the end, Scherzer finished nearly 10 minutes after the rest of his throwing group, who stopped and stood by after they had finished throwing to watch the Nationals ace at work.

"I think he looks as sharp as ever," catcher said.

"You watch him, every pitch he's engaged," manager Dave Martinez said. "If I'm a young pitcher, I'm watching him, and I'm taking notes and studying what he does. Because not every fifth day, but every day this guy puts a uniform on, he's competing."

This is Scherzer at age 34, unsatisfied after winning a pair of National Leage Cy Young Awards in 2016 and '17, then finishing in second place in '18 as he was unseated due to a historic year from the Mets' . Last season, Scherzer reached 300 strikeouts for the first time in his career. He was named the top ranked starting pitcher in all of baseball by MLB Network's Top 10 Right Now this winter.

And Scherzer is showing no signs of slowing down.

"I've been definitely critiquing myself and doing my homework in the offseason to figure out what I want to do and come up with new ideas of what I want to execute on the mound," he said. "This is fun. You get to try it first on your own hitters, and then you get to face in Spring Training the rest of the league.

"It's a new challenge to continue to evolve. Because it's either evolve or die."

There is a misconception that handing out long-term contracts in free agency is destined to fail. Scherzer is a perfect case study in why it can be wise to invest in the right player. There was trepidation from a few teams about handing him a lengthy deal before he eventually signed with the Nationals before the start of 2015, which Scherzer has certainly not forgotten. Now, that seven-year, $210 million contract looks pretty reasonable.

The Nationals would happily sign Scherzer to that contract again not only to serve as the anchor for a potentially dominant rotation, but also because he has become one of the leaders and faces of the franchise. Perhaps no player took missing the playoffs as hard as Scherzer did last season, and he went to dinner a few times this offseason in D.C. with Martinez as the two discussed their outlook for the 2019 season.

"2018 was a disappointing year, a terrible year for us," Scherzer said. "And we have to do things obviously differently if we want to have a successful year.

"This is going to be fun. This is going to be probably the stiffest competition in my career for the division race."