- The Washington Times
Thursday, February 18, 2021

Max Scherzer took the news better than might be expected.

After spraining his left ankle during conditioning training about two weeks ago, manager Dave Martinez put a kibosh on Scherzer’s usual full-speed approach to spring training.

The 36-year-old right-hander tends to begin spring training throwing 45 to 50 pitches in the bullpen. He’s a competitor who pitched seven scoreless innings with a broken nose and black eye in 2019. He’s entering the final year of his contract with the Washington Nationals, another motivating factor to come out firing.

Instead, Martinez’s message to Scherzer was one of caution, not wanting a minor ankle injury in February to amount into anything of more concern down the line.

“He actually took it pretty well,” Martinez said. “And I often joke with him, he’s not 25, as we all know. So, you know, maybe this’ll slow him down a little bit, he gets himself ready, and we get him ready to go again.”

The Nationals opened spring training Thursday, with pitchers and catchers throwing bullpens. Scherzer was the only major absentee, but Martinez said the ankle injury — which is on his landing leg — is something the team will take “day to day.”

Scherzer suffered the injury while conditioning but said he felt OK to pitch, Martinez said.

After throwing a bullpen, Scherzer felt the discomfort the sprain brought. That’s when Martinez told the three-time Cy Young Award winner to slow down to allow the injury to heal.

Beyond the ankle, Scherzer is in good shape, Martinez said. When he can return, he figures the pitcher to progress quickly, ready to build off a 2020 season in which Scherzer regressed.

He finished with a 3.74 ERA and 1.381 WHIP while allowing 1.3 home runs per nine innings — all three of which are his worst marks since joining Washington in 2015. Still, Scherzer is a critical piece in the Nationals’ rotation, one of four locks, along with Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester.

Strasburg, who pitched just five innings last season before undergoing carpal tunnel surgery, is slated to pitch a bullpen Friday. General manager Mike Rizzo said he’s “in preparation mode, not in rehabilitation mode,” and seems to be on schedule for the regular season.

Beyond those four starters, the yearly battle for the fifth spot continues with Joe Ross, Austin Voth and Erick Fedde in the mix. Martinez said that competition is “wide open” as camp begins.

With all of their pitchers, the Nationals hope to strike a balance between caution and proper preparation. With many pitching few innings last season — Ross opted out of the campaign, for instance, and Scherzer threw 105 fewer innings in 2020 than 2019 — there are careful considerations regarding workload required.

“The difference between the veteran pitchers and the young pitchers is we hope that the veteran pitchers are a little bit more cautious and intelligent on their own workload,” Rizzo said. “So, obviously, we’re going to listen to Max and Stras and Patrick and Lester, because they’ve been through the rigors of full seasons before.”

While Washington will listen to their veterans when it comes to that preparation, Scherzer required a bit of a reminder from Martinez to rein himself in. With Opening Day more than a month away, there’s no reason to rush Scherzer back to the mound.

“This could be a blessing in disguise, who knows?” Martinez said. “We just want to make sure that when he’s out there on the mound, his mechanics are right, everything’s right, so he doesn’t hurt anything else.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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