Scherzer, 36, had just turned in five innings and 90 pitches during an exhibition loss to the New York Mets. He allowed two homers while tinkering with his change-up (on Michael Conforto’s blast) and his slide step (on Francisco Lindor’s). It was never really a question whether he would be the Nationals’ Opening Day starter for the sixth time in seven seasons. The question is who and what comes next.
The obvious answer is that Stephen Strasburg will pitch April 3, two days after Scherzer faces the Mets’ Jacob deGrom to open the season at Nationals Park. But Strasburg has been slowed by a left calf strain and is expected to test it more this week. Regardless of whether he’s ready, the Nationals are deciding whether to have their two lefties — Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester — back-to-back or split up in the rotation.
The Nationals have eight days before heading north. When Martinez uses each pitcher in that stretch should give an indication of his early-season plans. As it often goes in spring, that schedule is unclear, too.
“So Corbin will pitch; Joe [Ross] will be back out there in the rotation,” Martinez said Sunday when asked how the week will look. “And then Lester will pitch again. Then we’ll get Stephen out there again. We’ll try to have more about how we will line this up in the next day or so, because it has been confusing. We’re just trying to get guys working. With [Strasburg’s] calf strain, with Jonny Lester, we’re trying to make sure those guys are healthy.”
Reading between the lines, Martinez named a staff of Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, Lester and Ross. At the beginning of camp, and even as recently as this weekend, Martinez maintained that Ross, Erick Fedde and Austin Voth were competing for the fifth starter spot. But Ross has been the supposed fifth man since the winter. His presence in the spring rotation has only reinforced that.
Ross, Strasburg and Lester bring varying levels of uncertainty. Strasburg suffered the calf strain in his most recent outing and is easing back. Ross opted out of 2020 with coronavirus concerns and is 17 months from his last real appearance. Lester, 37, had a parathyroid gland removed March 5 and has made one exhibition start.
Each could fill his first rotation turn. If Martinez goes with Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, Lester and Ross, in that order, then Lester has until April 5 to ramp up. Ross, in that case, would have until April 6.
The Nationals are also deciding whether to carry eight or nine relievers. The argument for nine is that, if the starters can’t shoulder their regular inning loads, Martinez will need more arms out of the bullpen. The argument for eight is that it keeps five players on the bench, lending flexibility for pinch-hitting situations and defensive substitutions. Martinez expects the decision to be made by how the rotation feels.
“Would I like to have another bench guy? Yeah, probably,” Martinez said Sunday. “It makes things a lot easier when you want to make moves late in the game. But you also don’t want to be short on pitching. So we’ll see which direction we go in here in the next 10 days.”
One of the few certainties is that Scherzer will again pitch Opening Day. He was slowed by a sprained left ankle in mid-February. Since, he has built his pitch count while fine-tuning. On Sunday, while facing a lineup of Mets regulars, Scherzer was unhappy with the shape and movement of his slider. He wanted it to get deeper on hitters before darting low and inside. In a matchup with catcher Tomás Nido, he yanked it way outside and threw it for a wild pitch.
Yet those mistakes are expected in March. Later in the outing, he reached back and struck out Nido with a 95-mph fastball. He mixed in a handful of curves to see how the Mets reacted. His final start of the spring will be in a “B game” against the Houston Astros on Saturday. Scherzer feels it will be a mental challenge to find energy with no crowd or noise in the park. Then he’ll jog out in front of 5,000 fans April 1.
“I had some stressful innings. I had a high pitch count there in the first. That mimics the season,” Scherzer said Sunday, drawing a line between spring struggles and thriving later. “It’s never just easy up and down. I wish it was, but it’s not. It’s good to have to grind through some innings, have some pitch counts, throw out of the stretch, move from stretch to windup, kind of all the things that happen during the year.”