WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Max Scherzer played catch with his normal, two-fingered fastball grip for a little bit on Monday. The knuckle at the base of his right ring finger ached. That he could use that two-fingered grip at all constitutes progress, because Scherzer had not done that yet this spring. That it still hurt constitutes a speed bump, because Scherzer will not throw off a mound until it doesn’t, whenever that might be.
“Achy’s a lot better than sharp pain, isn’t it?” Scherzer said. “That’s what the doctor said to me: They expect an achy feeling in there. Those are screaming symptoms of stress fractures. So it’s literally day-by-day with how I feel.”
The strange stress fracture in Scherzer’s ring finger is nearly healed now. But every time he throws, and still has pain, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner runs the risk of refracturing the troubled area.
“That’s why I’m trying to communicate as much as I can with all the symptoms,” said Scherzer, who has not been quite as loud or mischievous as he normally is this time of year. ” … you’ll know when I’m pain-free because I’ll have the biggest smile on my face.”
Scherzer stated unequivocally that he will not pitch off the mound until the pain is gone. While he pitched through the pain in that finger last year — and, in fact, said he felt very little discomfort while actually on the mound — Scherzer said he will not do that again. Lingering pain can cause compensation. He has, so far, avoided shoulder or elbow trouble as the result of the minor disruption to his kinetic chain. Pitching through the problem now is too great a risk.
Plus, Scherzer said, he is not so far behind in his throwing schedule that he feels a need to rush. He has long-tossed, with some control trouble, with that three-fingered grip multiple times. He threw tennis and lacrosse balls all winter.
“My arm is actually in very good shape from throwing tennis balls and lacrosse balls,” Scherzer said. “I was able to manage a lot of that early part of the throwing program so that as I’m finishing up this part of the healing process, my arm is much further along.”
But his arm is not as far along as it would be normally, because his fellow starters will be three bullpen sessions in by Tuesday afternoon, and Scherzer has not yet thrown, full-go, on flat ground. He seems likely to miss a few spring training starts, if not more, and the effects could trickle into the regular season as he walks the line between his desire to come back and his need for prudence. Scherzer has not missed a start during his time with the Nationals — he had one pushed back a few days — and has thrown more innings than anyone in baseball since 2013. Might a lightened early workload be a silver lining, and help him stay stronger late?
“I hate that line,” Scherzer said. “I’m built for this. I’m in my prime. I want the workload. I want all 33 starts. I felt great in the playoffs last year. That’s the thing: Over the years, I’ve learned how to take care of my body and take care of my arm. I don’t want to miss a single start. I know I have to be reasonable here. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I’m going to do whatever I can.”