Amped and ready: How is Nationals ace Max Scherzer somehow throwing harder than ever?

WASHINGTON — Oh, you thought Mad Max Scherzer was intense in the regular season? Stomping around the mound with his bruised orbital bone barking obscenities at himself, refusing to hand over the ball to a bullpen arm, and compiling an ERA over 30 percent better than average during his 12-year career. You probably assumed he kicked it up a notch in the postseason, competitive guy and all, limiting some of the best lineups in baseball to Nick Punto (no offense … or offense) levels of production in 82 October innings before this year.

But for the two appearances he’s made so far in the 2019 playoffs, the Washington Nationals’ three-time Cy Young Award winner has found a new speed. Literally.

“The atmospheres I've pitched in, here with the wild-card game and then there on the road in Dodger Stadium, I mean it's been intense,” Scherzer said before the Nationals dropped Game 3 on Sunday night, making Monday’s start a win-or-go-home affair. And if that sounds obvious to the point of trite, consider that most pitchers, when confronted with the elevated stakes of October, adopt (or at least project) a ‘just another game’ attitude.

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“There's no regular season environment that can replicate that,” he said. And no previous postseason environment could, either.

The result of that added pressure: “You're going to get the best out of me.”

Scherzer isn’t speaking broadly about some intangible commitment to buckling down and doing whatever it takes to get the team a win — although he did just that when he struck out three straight batters in an inning of relief in L.A. — but rather he’s trying to explain why, at 35 years old, he’s throwing harder than ever.

This is where I interrupt myself with the small-sample size caveat, and you try to tell me that of course he pitched harder in a single inning out of the bullpen. To the first point, sure. Ahead of his Game 4 start on Monday, when he’ll oppose the Dodgers’ Rich Hill and attempt to force the series to a decisive Game 5, Scherzer has only logged six innings this month.

Max Scherzer flips a ball in the dugout during Game 3 of the NLDS between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Washington Nationals. (Getty Images)
Max Scherzer flips a ball in the dugout during Game 3 of the NLDS between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Washington Nationals. (Getty Images)

But about the relief outing? Let’s go to the numbers: According to Brooks Baseball, Scherzer averaged 95.2 mph on his four-seam fastball in the regular season, matching his previous regular season high from 2016. That year, in 12 October innings, he set a postseason career-high by averaging 95.3 mph. His other playoff runs have featured similarly small bumps.

This year? He averaged 97.2 mph in the wild-card game, two ticks faster than his season average and faster than any of his other single-game averages — that includes all his regular season starts, 13 postseason starts, and three previous postseason relief appearances.

Three days later, on short rest, he averaged 98.2 mph at Dodger Stadium to protect Stephen Strasburg’s sparkling performance and even the series at one game apiece before coming home to D.C.

Nationals pitching coach Paul Menhart says it’s been a conscious choice for the ace to kick it into high gear this past week.

“He usually throws harder toward the tail end of an outing; that’s when he empties his tank,” Menhart explained and remarkably, this is true, if only slightly. In five seasons with the Nationals, Scherzer’s average fastball velocity is 94.9 mph in the first inning, but breaks the 95 mph threshold in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. It’s small, but significant considering the trend is for pitchers to lose velocity as they fatigue.

“The last two outings he’s stepped on the gas earlier.” Try 98.5 in the first inning of the wild-card game. And just as you might expect, that costs him some oomph later in the game — and didn’t produce the greatest results, giving up three runs on two homers in the first two frames. But pulled in the fifth inning of that contest, Scherzer was still throwing close to 97.

By bumping Scherzer’s start from Game 3 to 4 in the wake of his Game 2 heroics, the Nationals are (probably? I mean gotta be, right? Even Max Scherzer couldn’t….) precluding the chance to have Scherzer pitch out of the pen if there was a Game 5. And Menhart said that if the Nats are able to advance they’ll likely be more traditional with their starter usage in a seven-game series. Those short stints are good for goosing the average velocity but of course that’s hardly the point. And besides, by waiting a day ...

“You’ll get a fresher arm, period,” Menhart said. “I’m not sure what he’s going to bring tomorrow when he starts, if he’s going to step on it early or not, he likes to feel the game. But if I was a betting man, I would guess he’d going to give us his all right out of the gate.”

Scherzer laughed when asked if he noticed the unprecedented uptick.

“Yeah, I've noticed it,” he said. “I've had some fun with the other guys in the clubhouse. Still the old guy, can still throw hard. But for me it's just a mentality of just going out there with everything on the line.”

Everything — the NLDS, the season, a definitive answer to whether or not the Nationals can win a series in October — really will be on the line Monday night. In a 10-4 loss characteristic of their season-long bullpen woes, the Nats squandered five innings of one-run ball by Aníbal Sánchez, who left with the lead. The same nontraditional pitching move that gave Scherzer a chance to shine in Game 2 backfired when Game 1 starter Patrick Corbin came on in relief and gave up six runs in what turned out to be a seven-run inning.

And so, on Monday the Nationals will let their ace feel the weight of a must-win game because that’s what gives him the adrenaline to throw harder than he ever has.

“I think he’s capable of upper 90s for sure, maybe even touching 100 if he wants to,” Menhart said. “He’s kind of a freak of nature.”

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