The Nationals' playoff hopes are riding on Max Scherzer getting back to Cy Young form

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WASHINGTON – While other playoff contenders scoreboard-watch in these early days of September, Nationals ace Max Scherzer may feel like he’s back in West Palm Beach, Fla., in the early days of March.

Like a pitcher building up strength in spring training, Scherzer is attempting to work his way back to Cy Young form here in the final month of the 2019 campaign after two recent stints on the injured list due to a back strain.

It’s possible the Nationals season is riding on whether the 35-year-old can pitch like he’s the best in the world yet again.

The wild-card game is 27 days away, and Scherzer and the Nationals coaches are working against the clock. There’s plenty of time for him to continue to improve and be ready for October, but any setbacks could alter his availability.

Scherzer’s status is one that could have wide-ranging implications.

“We’re going to take it day by day, and we’re still trying to get that playoff spot so nothing is assumed,” Nationals pitching coach Paul Menhart told Yahoo Sports before Scherzer allowed four runs in six innings in the Nationals’ miraculous 11-10 win over the Mets. “We need him at his best as soon as possible.”

Trying to be Mad Max

For so long, Scherzer has been one of the constants in the sport. He takes the ball every fifth day and dominates, often in spectacular fashion. Scherzer can own a game like few others. There’s a reason he’s won three Cy Young Awards.

Yet, for seemingly the first time in his Nationals tenure, there is some uncertainty surrounding Scherzer. A back strain is no minor issue, and the Nationals are proceeding cautiously to ensure they keep their ace as healthy as possible.

The Nationals have a six-game lead in the wild-card race, and since Atlanta won’t slow down, it seems the Nationals will be playing in the wild-card game on Oct. 1.

Facing Scherzer in an elimination game normally would seem like a nightmare, but there’s no guarantee at the moment that he will be back to full strength. And if he’s not back to form, the Nationals would have a tough call to make for that game.

The onus is thus on the Nationals coaches and Scherzer to do all they can to have him as close to 100 percent for Oct. 1. If they have to go to the bullpen earlier than normal this month, so be it. Scherzer is that important.

Menhart said he’s been keeping a closer eye on Scherzer between starts just to make sure everything is going smoothly. He added that Scherzer has not altered his mechanics, which is key since altering any steps in his delivery could lead to more injuries since more stress would be placed on other body parts.

“It’s a progression, and more of how he’s feeling and how we’re going to use him and how amped up he wants to get with each outing,” Menhart said. “We’re definitely monitoring him throughout the week and making sure he feels as normal as possible. We watch him during the games, and more importantly, see how he recovers the next day.”

He added: “We’re just being extra aware. This is something he hasn’t had to endure before.”

The Washington Nationals are working to get starting pitcher Max Scherzer ready for a potential wild-card game after two back injuries. (Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)
The Washington Nationals are working to get starting pitcher Max Scherzer ready for a potential wild-card game after two back injuries. (Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

Upping the intensity

Wednesday is one of those days when the Nationals will be checking in on Scherzer since it comes after his longest outing since being activated from the injured list. Scherzer threw 90 pitches over six innings after topping out at 89 pitches spanning 4.1 innings in his first two starts after returning.

The Nationals wanted to let Scherzer increased his intensity against the Mets.

“He turns the corner today, and he’s full go,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said before the game.

Scherzer showcased enough Tuesday to warrant optimism, although it’s clear he’s still not quite right yet, which is to be expected at this point.

While Scherzer allowed just one total base runner in five of his innings, he ran into problems in the fourth inning, and that four-run frame defined his night.

Scherzer acknowledged that he exerted himself more Tuesday, throwing his pitches at 100 percent after being more passive in his previous starts.

In that fourth inning, his command evaded him at times while he dialed up the effort, and the Mets capitalized by ambushing his first pitches.

Four hitters registered hits on first pitches, including light-hitting infielder Joe Panik, who hit a two-run homer to right-center to give the Mets a 4-1 lead.

Scherzer’s fastball sat 94-97 mph, in line with his season numbers, and he still managed to induce 15 swings and misses.

“Picking up the intensity on a per pitch basis was higher tonight than it has been the past two starts. That’s why I feel like today was a good step forward,” said Scherzer, who is lined up to make four more starts this season. “These are big league hitters, they can hit any mistake you make so when I’m cranking up the intensity I have to keep the location where I want to throw a ball and there were a couple that leaked over the middle of the plate where I didn’t execute it quite the right way. Take your lumps, move forward, and try to sharpen everything up.”

Scherzer hoped to stay in for the seventh inning, but Martinez didn’t let the righty win that battle.

“I told him, ‘Hey, let’s think about the big picture,’” Martinez said. “‘You feel great, that’s six innings from you. Let’s just build from there.”

Less than four weeks to go

The one advantage the Nationals have over most teams is that should Scherzer not return to form, they have two capable replacements for that wild-card game in righty Stephen Strasburg and southpaw Patrick Corbin.

Yet, for as talented as those two are, these Nationals will not be nearly as feared come October if Scherzer isn’t the growling strikeout machine that he normally is.

The Nationals need Scherzer back if this franchise is finally going to win its first playoff series and end all its October frustration.

“He’s giving us a chance to win every single time, striking guys out and being Max. I think as the time goes and he gets more comfortable, everything starts clicking for him, you’ll see that mad Max out there,” said Tuesday’s walk-off hero, catcher Kurt Suzuki. “That’s kind of what we’re waiting for. He’s obviously in my eyes the best pitcher in the game right now. You’ll take him every fifth day.”

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