For Scherzer, ev­ery pitch brings him close to the edge

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - thomas.boswell@wash­post.com For more by Thomas Boswell, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/boswell.

west palm beach, fla. — The price of great­ness can be de­struc­tion. Max Scherzer, the pitcher who stalks the mound like he wants to bite the ball, has got­ten closer to the edge than he wants.

Ever since Scherzer ar­rived in train­ing camp a month ago, he has been wor­ried. At times, the reign­ing Na­tional League Cy Young Award win­ner even has been scared. For seven months, he has been per­plexed and alarmed by an in­jury to his ring-fin­ger knuckle that caused him pain when­ever he used a nor­mal twofin­ger fast­ball grip.

“I don’t feel it in any other ac­tiv­ity or pitch, just my fast­ball grip,” Scherzer explained. Which would be like Ein­stein say­ing he got dizzy only if he tried to think.

To elim­i­nate pain dur­ing his bullpen sessions for the fi­nal two months of 2016 and all of this spring train­ing, Scherzer in­vented a bizarre three-fin­ger fast­ball grip that no one in base­ball uses.

Be­cause no one throws such a pitch — putting a third fin­ger on the top of the ball cuts ve­loc­ity — no one knows whether it might

lead to an arm in­jury. For ev­ery other type of pitch, there is a li­brary. For a “three-fin­ger fast­ball,” there is a blank page.

On Thurs­day, Scherzer and his Washington Na­tion­als fi­nally saw what they hope is the be­gin­ning of a res­o­lu­tion to a mys­te­ri­ous in­jury that has chilled the en­tire or­ga­ni­za­tion. In a mi­nor league game, the Na­tion­als’ $210 mil­lion arm used his tra­di­tional twofin­ger fast­ball nine times in 54 pitches. No pain of any kind.

“Now I feel back,” he said, giv­ing the out­ing a pos­i­tive tilt.

Scherzer will miss an Open­ing Day start but hopes to be ready in the sea­son’s first week and not miss a turn in the ro­ta­tion. But he also told the rest of the truth.

“I’m still day-to-day in terms of how the fin­ger re­cov­ers,” he said. “Even though I had a great day to­day, I have to make sure all the lig­a­ments re­cover. I have to make sure I didn’t overdo it, make sure I do all my treat­ment so that, man, I don’t have to do this again. Be­cause that was not fun.”

Na­tion­als fans can’t re­lax yet. Scherzer, who nor­mally throws 55 per­cent fast­balls, some up to 98 mph, trusted his knuckle enough to throw his best pitch just nine times.

For now, he re­mains a daily re­minder of how pre­car­i­ous his pro­fes­sion is, with a con­stant bal­ance be­tween pro­fes­sional tough­ness and de­tached good judg­ment. How tricky is that? In his fi­nal 11 starts of last sea­son, two in the play­offs, Scherzer pitched with mind-over-pain and adren­a­line. But per­haps be­cause of that tough-it-out men­tal­ity, what was di­ag­nosed as a “strain” in Au­gust turned out to be a stress frac­ture of a bone in the knuckle af­ter a Jan­uary X-ray.

Is Scherzer playing with fire? It’s one thing to pitch with pain in a pen­nant race and use a wacky grip in your bullpen sessions when the stakes are so high. But why push this spring? Why not just wait for “no pain,” then ramp up from zero even if it means miss­ing April or May, too? Why all th­ese three-fin­ger fast­balls to build up arm strength so that he won’t miss any starts this sea­son?

Scherzer would like ev­ery­one to un­der­stand his de­ci­sion be­cause he doesn’t be­lieve that peo­ple out­side the game grasp how nor­mal and nec­es­sary such ad­just­ments are for all play­ers. Pain, risk and adap­ta­tion are just part of his life. And so he is lis­ten­ing to his body, mak­ing a tough choice, then cross­ing his fin­gers.

“When you pitch, you’re al­ways right at the edge of your phys­i­cal lim­its. You’re like a race­car driver go­ing 200 miles an hour into a banked turn,” Scherzer said. “You have to push, push, push. But if you push just a lit­tle too hard, you crash. You spend your ca­reer find­ing that bal­ance.”

You can un­der­stand an an­i­mal only in its nat­u­ral habi­tat. Some­times, hu­mans, too. To sense why Scherzer is con­sid­ered a com­plete com­peti­tor, a fierce, stalk­ing force of a per­former who may end up in the Hall of Fame, we need to see him in the con­text of his game — not the pas­toral fic­tion but as it’s re­ally played.

Few base­ball fans grasp the need to play through pain that is so sharp that it lives at the very edge of in­jury. A hard heart runs through this de­cep­tively pleas­ant game. If the sport has a daily sub­text, it is that de­ceit­ful ache that re­fuses to say whether it is the pre­cur­sor to a ma­jor in­jury or sim­ply a test of grim pro­fes­sional for­ti­tude. Ma­jor league play­ers are aware of it ev­ery day. Who has it? Who can bear it and adapt to it with­out dam­ag­ing him­self badly? Or, on the other hand, who fights against the hurt too hard and crip­ples his en­tire ca­reer?

How many in a crowd of 30,000 know the big league gold stan­dard for tough­ness? Jayson Werth didn’t learn it un­til his rookie year. With the Dodgers in 2004, he watched team­mate Adrian Bel­tre play most of the year with bone spurs in his left an­kle. Ev­ery time Bel­tre swung and missed, his weight landed on that leg as he spun.

“He’d scream, ‘AARGH!’ [and] kick his front foot in the air from the pain and fall down,” Werth said. “But he toughed it out, found a way to play — ev­ery day, all year. I thought, ‘Okay, I get it. This guy is what it’s all about up here. Awe­some.’ ”

Bel­tre played 156 games, hit 48 homers and fin­ished with 121 RBI.

Man­ager Dusty Baker said of one of his Nats, “I don’t know how he plays with ev­ery­thing he has in that wrist — plates, screws, nuts. It’s been bro­ken, then had surgery three times. But he does it. Peo­ple are de­pend­ing on you.” He was talking about Werth. When he was young, Baker was told by Satchel Paige, “Stay out of the train­ing room. Don’t let ’em see you in there.” So Baker bought med­i­cal equip­ment for his home to doc­tor him­self. “Ex­cept for the 35 cor­ti­sone shots,” he said. Did he play in pain much? “The last 10 years,” he said, af­ter knee surgery left a foot-long scar.

Where did Baker learn this code? “When I was a rookie, Hank Aaron would limp into the club­house walk­ing like Fred San­ford. He’d sit at his locker look­ing at a news­pa­per. But his eyes wouldn’t move,” Baker re­called. “I asked [team­mate] Ralph Garr, ‘What’s he do­ing?’ Ralph said, ‘Hank is think­ing away pain.’

“In the game, Aaron would run like noth­ing was wrong. But when he walked out of the ball­park, he looked like Fred San­ford again,” Baker said, shak­ing his head, then re­peat­ing to him­self, “‘Think­ing away pain.’ ”

The rea­son you don’t hear much about this is be­cause the peo­ple who can en­dure it are also the peo­ple who don’t talk much about it. Scherzer never talked about any prob­lem last year. Un­til pitch­ing coach Mike Mad­dux men­tioned it to me for this story, you didn’t know Scherzer used a three-fin­ger grip be­tween starts last year.

“What Max has been do­ing, that’s straight ‘throw­back’ right there,” Baker said. “Like Aaron al­ways said, ‘You find a way.’ ”

What if, a week or a month from now, Scherzer’s knuckle starts to hurt again? What if the strain or even the stress frac­ture reap­pears? No one knows ex­actly what caused it or ag­gra­vated it — no one can remember a base­ball player who has had it — so how can they know what might bring it back? Or worsen it?

The hu­man el­bow and shoul­der were cre­ated, it seems, to self­de­struct when­ever a pitcher asks his ten­dons and lig­a­ments to work in some pe­cu­liar, un­proven way. Scherzer knows it. He un­der­stands his body, ev­ery ki­netic chain in it, and has made de­ci­sions about when to push and how hard his whole life.

It’s cen­tral to his base­ball iden­tity. He will live with con­se­quences, good or not.

As Scherzer walked into the Nats’ club­house this past week, some­one wise­cracked, “Here comes ol’ Morde­cai [Three Fin­ger] Brown.”

Scherzer dropped his hand to his side, grinned and im­i­tated the three-fin­ger grip that Brown, a Hall of Fame pitcher who lost parts of two fin­gers in a farm ac­ci­dent in his youth, might have used more than a cen­tury ago.

If we want to link up Max and Morde­cai, feel free — both old school, hard nosed or, maybe, just bat­tling to make the best of what they’ve got. If the pitch­ing el­ders could over­come the mal­ice of farm ma­chin­ery, surely Mad Max can pitch through a sore knuckle.

At least that’s what the Nats de­voutly hope.

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASHINGTON POST

Max Scherzer has been us­ing a three-fin­gered grip on his fast­ball for much of spring train­ing be­cause of a knuckle in­jury.

Thomas Boswell

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