WARNING: This story contains graphic speculation.
Max Scherzer wants everyone to believe he’s OK.
“Look, I’m bouncing.”
Standing in front of his locker at the end of a six-minute news conference Sunday morning, a smiling Scherzer danced back and forth on his toes like a heavyweight in the ring. A floating baseball butterfly. Exactly how much sting he was feeling, it’s hard to know for sure.
This past Saturday night, Scherzer left his start against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the fourth inning after suffering a leg injury. Fifteen hours later, with a white sleeve wrapped around his right thigh, he stood in the Washington Nationals' clubhouse and acted as his own medical spokesman.
“I tweaked my hammy,” the 33-year-old right-hander said at the outset of his presser. “They wanted me to get an MRI. Went there, got the MRI, showed exactly what we thought. Nothing major -- I can walk and run around on this. It's not a major strain or anything, where it's debilitating, so I'm pretty upbeat and positive about going forward here.”
To recap, Scherzer’s injury is not anything major. It’s not a major strain. It’s not a Major Tom or a Major Lazer. It’s not a Lee Majors or an Ursa Major or even a college major. As for what the injury is, well, it’s difficult to tell at this point.
“It was just a small tweak,” the Nats' ace said when asked to elaborate on his imaging results. “It wasn't a major strain or anything. I can say that looking at the MRI, there's nothing major here, but to get a correct diagnosis, they wanted to have a couple other doctors look at it.”
On one hand, a “small tweak” sounds benign enough. Like some sort of impossibly cute, miniature creature that someone might surprise you with as a Christmas gift. Ooh, a small tweak! I’ve always wanted one of those. On the other hand, “tweak” is hardly a conclusive orthopedic classification. And seeing as how Scherzer said multiple times that his injury was not a major strain, it’s hard not to think -- and here comes the graphic speculation part -- that it’s some sort of minor strain, the extent of which it still to be determined.
Regardless of the extent of Scherzer’s boo-boo, it’s worth noting that, less than 24 hours after his injury, he was able to do plenty. He was able to play catch, as he did prior to his team’s season finale on Sunday, seemingly without limitations. He was able to float like a butterfly. He was able to run, or so he says. As for whether manager Dusty Baker can run him out to the mound in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, only time will tell.
If Scherzer is able to take the ball Friday against the Cubs, good for him and good for the Nats. After all, he’s everything you want in a Game 1 starter. He’s a two-time Cy Young winner who, based on his standout 2017 numbers, could soon be a three-time Cy Young winner. He’s a veteran hurler who has been there, done that, pitching in Game 1 of the division series on three previous occasions. He’s a pathologically competitive warrior who, earlier this month after missing time with a neck injury, implored his manager to leave him in the game well past 100 pitches just so he’d have the stamina to go deep into Game 1, even though it resulted in a bunch of walks and earned runs that essentially amounted to statistical suicide.
The only thing that Scherzer is not is completely healthy. At least not at the moment. Given that, and given the way that Stephen Strasburg has been dealing, there’s little to no reason why Baker should take any chances in rushing Scherzer back for Game 1 duty. Just how good has Strasburg been? Good enough that over the past six weeks, he decreased the gap between his and Scherzer’s ERA from a full run to one-hundredth of a run. Good enough that in this, The Year of the Home Run, he somehow managed to not serve up a single gopher ball in his past seven starts. Good enough that he spun a string of 35 straight scoreless innings, a franchise record and the longest streak in the majors this season.
That’s not to say that Scherzer hasn’t been stellar himself. He leads the National League in strikeouts (263) and WHIP (0.90). He ranks second behind Clayton Kershaw in ERA (2.51). As mentioned above, there’s a better-than-sporting chance that he beats out Kershaw and wins another Cy Young Award. But if there’s even the slightest bit of uncertainty as to whether Scherzer will be himself by the time Friday rolls around, then Baker should roll with Strasburg in Game 1 and save Scherzer for Game 2.
Sure, 24 hours might not make a huge difference. But even if it’s only the difference between Scherzer and his hammy being, say, 80 percent and 90 percent (and I’m totally making up these numbers), why not wait? After all, even if Scherzer starts Game 2, thanks to the two travel days layered into the series schedule, he’d still be able to start a potential Game 5 on the normal four days rest. So whether Baker decides to go Scherzer/Strasburg or Strasburg/Scherzer, he would have both of them available to start the deciding game. That is, if there is a deciding game. And if Scherzer’s able to pitch at all in the NLDS.
For what it’s worth, Baker expects to have his ace against the Cubs. He just doesn’t know when exactly.
“Probably,” the Nats skipper said when asked after Sunday’s regular-season finale if Scherzer’s hammy would affect Washington's NLDS rotation. “He’s gonna be fine. We just gotta determine when that is."
In other words, Scherzer should be able to bounce back from his small tweak. In the meantime, at least he can bounce.