Max Scherzer set to return from back injury Thursday ahead of Nationals' playoff push

Ben WeinribYahoo Sports Contributor

The red-hot Washington Nationals are 9-5 in August, taking over as the top wild card team in the NL, but now they’re about to get their biggest reinforcement yet.

Ahead of Sunday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers, manager Dave Martinez told reporters that ace Max Scherzer is scheduled to start on Thursday against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Scherzer has been battling back issues since the All-Star break, when he initially landed on the 10-day injured list. He came back to make a five-inning start on July 25 but needed more time off to heal back and shoulder issues.

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The Nationals felt good about clearing Scherzer after he threw a 65-pitch simulated game on Sunday, and he declared himself ready to pitch again.’s Jamal Collier reports that he will likely be on a 75-80 pitch count, similar to his last start off the IL.

Scherzer has not spent much time on the shelf throughout his career, so the time off has him antsy. He began the 2009 season on what was then called the disabled list and also missed 10 days in 2017 with neck inflammation. But besides that, he's been perfectly healthy. Scherzer and Jon Lester are the only pitchers with at least 30 starts each of the last 10 years.

How much will this help the Nationals’ playoff chances?

The NL playoff picture is awfully crowded with four teams 2.5 games or fewer away from the second wild card. That doesn't give much wiggle room for the Nats, who hold just a 1.5-game lead over the Chicago Cubs for the first spot.

Projection models are still fairly optimistic about Washington’s chances, though, as FanGraphs gives them an 87.4 percent chance of making the playoffs, including a 15.8 percent chance of overtaking the Atlanta Braves to win the division.

Scherzer will give them an extra boost considering how dominant he’s been this season. Not only has he been historically great — he still leads the majors in pitching WAR despite missing a month — but his replacements have been mediocre at best. Erick Fedde (4.09 ERA, 5.22 FIP) and Joe Ross (9.69, 6.68) are far more valuable in relief than as starters.

Scherzer’s return also coincides with the loss of overworked closer Sean Doolittle, who landed on the 10-day IL Sunday with knee tendinitis. He leads baseball with 49 games finished and showed his wear and tear on Saturday when he blew another save in a wild 14-inning affair.

Nationals ace Max Scherzer will return from the injured list on Thursday. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Nationals ace Max Scherzer will return from the injured list on Thursday. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Can Scherzer still win the Cy Young Award?

As noted earlier, Scherzer’s 5.7 WAR leads all major league pitchers with Jacob deGrom closest among NL pitchers at 5.1. However, his closest competition for the Cy Young may be Hyun-Jin Ryu.

Ryu holds a clear advantage in ERA (1.64 to 2.41), and voters often tend to look at that figure first. But the underlying numbers show Scherzer has been far more dominant. With 12.7 strikeouts per nine innings to Ryu's 7.6 K/9 and similar walk numbers, Scherzer has an equivalent edge in FIP, 2.08 to 2.99.

Scherzer’s stint on the IL may hamper his innings total, but he only needs about seven starts to surpass 180 innings, which Blake Snell pitched last season in his AL Cy Young campaign. If he can maintain his dominant strikeout numbers down the stretch — and if the Nationals make the playoffs, since some voters care — then Scherzer has a good shot to become the fifth pitcher to ever win four Cy Youngs.

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