WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The reigning Cy Young Award winner may not be ready for Opening Day.
Washington Nationals starter Max Scherzer worked off to the side Thursday during the team’s first spring workout. The stress fracture in the bottom knuckle of his right ring finger has caused a delayed start to his spring throwing program and his unknown recovery timetable has put his status for April 3 in jeopardy.
The problem was discovered following the season. After Scherzer pitched through pain in what was thought to be a sprained finger, a second MRI in early December showed a stress fracture. Scherzer said Thursday the fracture is almost healed.
“For me, I’m just glad we look on the MRI and we see the little line that was in there in my knuckle, it’s gone,” Scherzer said. “For now, it’s just progressing and I’m doing what I can to make sure that this never happens again.”
He threw a tennis ball and lacrosse ball in the offseason, and a baseball this week. Though, he’s not sure when his hand and arm will be ready to pitch for the Nationals. Washington opens the season at home April 3 vs. Miami. Will he be ready?
“I don’t even want to comment on it,” Scherzer said. “Because I don’t know what I am going to be able to do or not. It would be unfair for me to project or even talk about that. Really just take it day-by-day and see where this finger’s at. Just keep progressing.”
Scherzer said he began to feel pain in his finger after an Aug. 25 start against the Baltimore Orioles. Following that start, his ring finger ached when he tried throw a baseball. The injury was first diagnosed as a finger sprain. The day before his next start against the Philadelphia Phillies on Aug. 30, Scherzer warmed up through pain. Once he was loose, though, he felt better and informed the team he could pitch.
“I didn’t experience any symptoms or any pain,” Scherzer said.
He treated the injury as if it was tendinitis and chose to pitch through it. Scherzer is not sure when the sprain turned to a stress fracture. He said it was just a result of continuing to pitch, which was his decision. Scherzer also noted he had no elbow or shoulder injuries as a result of continuing to pitch.
The results were good enough for Scherzer to win his second Cy Young Award after he finished with a 2.96 ERA and led the National League in WHIP, innings pitched and strikeouts.
At this point, Scherzer said he feels fine doing day-to-day activities, but throwing a baseball is what makes the finger hurt.
Scherzer had hoped the injury would clear itself up in November. After a second MRI in early December showed the stress fracture, he was forced to reluctantly withdraw from pitching for the United States in the World Baseball Classic, which starts March 10 for the U.S. team.
“That’s when I just knew I was not going to be ready for the WBC under any circumstances,” Scherzer said.
The Nationals are considering contingency plans since Scherzer’s timetable is unknown.
“How long it takes, we don’t know,” manager Dusty Baker said. “However long it takes, then that’s how it is. We have to find a way to replace Max, if we have to, for a temporary period of time.”
The next logical choice would be Stephen Strasburg, who is coming off an injury, too. Strasburg finished last season trying to get back into a game before the playoffs ended. He did not.
He has not pitched in a game since Sept. 7, 2016, when he came out in the third inning because of strained flexor mass in his right elbow. Seeing Strasburg flex his arm on the mound prompted initial concerns that he had again torn his ulnar collateral ligament. The Nationals took the rare step of making head trainer Paul Lessard available to the media to explain that Strasburg’s UCL was intact. Strasburg later said he had a partially torn pronator tendon.
Strasburg threw from a bullpen mound on Thursday in West Palm Beach for about 10 minutes. He said it went well and that his arm is fine.
He also mentioned that his weight is up to 240 pounds after focusing on functional weightlifting in the offseason. Down is his body mass index, which measures body fat in adults. Strasburg added more long distance running to his offseason routine, then tapered his running down to sprints when he began to throw more. He’s focused on making it through the entire season.
“I think in the past, when I was younger, I tried to stay out of the training room as much as possible, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it’s no different than spending time in the weight room,” Strasburg said. “You need to get your work in in the training room as well to make sure everything is staying where it needs to be.”
In the offseason, he suggested that often throwing a cutter last season — the first year he featured the pitch — may have helped lead to his pronator tear. The pitch was effective, but Strasburg expects to reduce its usage this season. He has two other high-end off-speed pitches: a curveball and changeup.
“I didn’t have it when I first got to the big leagues, and I didn’t have it any of the other years,” Strasburg said. “I think my changeup and my curveball are still above average pitches that can get guys out, so I think I’m going to use it, but use my other stuff too.”
He may be throwing it all Opening Day.
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