WASHINGTON -- Max Scherzer wanted his simulated game on Tuesday afternoon at Nationals Park to resemble the real thing as closely as possible.
So after he threw about 31 pitches in the bullpen and made his way to the mound, Anibal Sanchez played Scherzer’s walkup music -- “Still D.R.E.” -- from a portable speaker as he warmed up on the mound. He faced three hitters: Howie Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman and Gerardo Parra, who was accompanied to the box by his walk-up music, “Baby Shark.” Scherzer wore his full uniform, checked imaginary runners at first base and mixed in all of his pitches as he tossed about 32 more pitches on the mound, according to manager Dave Martinez, who estimated he threw 63 pitches on the day.
The outing was Scherzer’s most significant step forward yet in his recovery from a mild strain of the rhomboid muscle in his upper back, but one the Nationals will not be able properly to assess until Wednesday. The Nats' ace felt good as he left the mound Tuesday, but throughout this battle with back injuries that have limited him to five innings since July 6, what has been more important is how he feels the next day.
“The hurdle has been the recovery,” Martinez said. “Before, the recovery wasn't great and he felt something, but the last couple times he threw, he didn't feel anything, so that's why we bumped him up to the sim game today. Hopefully tomorrow he comes back and he says, ‘Hey, I feel like I normally do when I pitch.' If he says that, then we can move forward.”
Looking ahead, Scherzer's next steps remain murky.
If Scherzer comes away from this sim game without issue, he will throw a light side session in the coming days, perhaps as soon as Thursday. Then, the Nationals will have to determine what to do next. Scherzer could pitch in another simulated game, or he could pitch in a Minor League rehab assignment. But Martinez also did not rule out the chance that Scherzer might be able to take his next turn in the rotation five days from now, albeit with an abbreviated pitch count.
“If we decided to pitch him in a game, it wouldn't be 100 pitches right away, I can tell you that right now,” Martinez said. “We really gotta be very careful where we're at with him right now. This is to get him through the rest of the season and then some.”
Scherzer has been battling this lingering back issue since the conclusion of his start on June 30 against the Tigers, although he initially did not think it would require him to miss any time. That injury, which was diagnosed as inflammation of the bursa sac, lingered through the All-Star break and required a trip to the injured list. He returned to make one start, on July 25, where he threw 86 pitches in five innings against Colorado before the discomfort in his back returned and he went back on the IL with the rhomboid muscle strain.
Since then, the Nats have treated their ace with caution. Martinez was careful to place expectations on Scherzer or hint at what could come next, but he admitted he was excited to see the right-hander one step closer to returning to games.
“Just seeing him throw in the sim game, I was a little amped up myself, that he's another step closer to recovering and coming back,” Martinez said. “That's a good sign. I'm going to worry about the game today, focus on the game, and then hopefully tomorrow we get good news and he feels good.”
• Juan Soto is back on the Nationals' lineup on Tuesday, after missing just one game after spraining his right ankle on Sunday in New York.
“He checked all the boxes,” Martinez said. “We got him on the field. He ran angles, he turned like he was running the bases. The biggest thing was the turns. He said he felt great.”
• Brian Dozier was back in the lineup as well Tuesday after missing the past few days with an illness.
• Reliever Greg Holland passed his physical on Tuesday and was assigned to Double-A Harrisburg.