Man with a plan

De­spite re­sults, Scherzer wanted high pitch count

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY TODD DYBAS

There was a plan from the start. It be­ing ad­hered to was the rea­son it raised ques­tions.

When Max Scherzer, one of the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als’ prime com­modi­ties, went to the mound for the sev­enth in­ning against the At­lanta Braves on Wed­nes­day night, he brought the la­bor of 97 pitches and thought that he wanted more. Scherzer had asked be­fore the game started to be “stretched out.” A re­cent spate of light in­juries — stiff neck, come­backer off the calf — had chopped down his work­load. The looming play­offs and slowed work­load spurred him to want to throw more pitches.

The Na­tion­als ex­e­cuted the plan. They rolled up Scherzer’s pitch count, in part prompt­ing his worst out­ing of the sea­son when do­ing so, and show­ing a lack of flex­i­bil­ity when the plan ap­peared to be un­wind­ing.

Scherzer had dis­cussed this plan with pitch­ing coach Mike Mad­dux and man­ager Dusty Baker. Mad­dux, for all in­tents and pur­poses, runs the pitch­ing staff. He maps out pitch counts, what sit­u­a­tion a spe­cific re­lief pitcher may be used and re­lays to Baker who is fresh. He ar­guably has more in­flu­ence on when to leave a pitcher in or take him out than any pitch­ing coach in Ma­jor League Base­ball.

Scherzer is 33 years old and tuned into his body. He doesn’t pitch ex­tra to prove things any­more, ad­mit­ting af­ter var­i­ous starts this sea­son that he was fa­tigued and be­ing re­moved was the right de­ci­sion. Un­like young, un­estab­lished pitch­ers, he doesn’t have to show ex­tra might to re­tain his job or re­ceive a bet­ter salary. His value has been de­ter­mined.

Which brings up the top of the sev­enth in­ning Wed­nes­day. Scherzer will have an ex­tra day off be­fore his next start, which meant Wed­nes­day was the time he wanted to push things. Based on the Na­tion­als’ de­ci­sion to have no one warm­ing up in the bullpen — de­spite hav­ing clinched a play­off spot two days prior and hav­ing an ex­panded ros­ter to work from — it was clear they were go­ing to to ful­fill Scherzer’s pref­er­ence.

“I asked and we thought it would be a good idea to try to get me into 120, 115, 110 pitch count [Wed­nes­day],” Scherzer said. “I thought that would help ben­e­fit me go­ing for­ward and then look­ing ahead into the post­sea­son, to pitch with some ex­tra fa­tigue. Usu­ally, I’ve been able to do that in the past. But be­cause of all the lit­tle in­juries I’ve been deal­ing with, I haven’t re­ally been able to get past 100 pitches for quite awhile.

“So I knew it was im­por­tant for me, go­ing into that start [Wed­nes­day], to be able to get to that

level. That’s where I showed some rust [Wed­nes­day]. For the first 100 pitches, I felt like I was ex­e­cut­ing pitches the way I wanted to tonight. Then af­ter pitch 100, that’s when the wheels fell off and I was search­ing for ev­ery­thing. Some­times that hap­pens. You can just learn from this. I don’t think any­thing’s bro­ken. My arm feels fine. There’s noth­ing wrong here. This is why I needed to pitch that deep into the game, so I can shake off some of that rust and later in the year here, I’m able to be strong all the way through 110 pitches.”

Let’s start with the work­load lead­ing up to Wed­nes­day. Scherzer had four starts re­main­ing be­fore the night be­gan. He had thrown 179 pitches in his two prior Septem­ber starts. Last sea­son, Scherzer threw 626 pitches dur­ing five Septem­ber starts and one Oc­to­ber start be­fore the play­offs be­gan. To match that out­put, he would need to throw 112 pitches per out­ing be­fore this sea­son closed.

It was also around this time last sea­son when Scherzer maxed out his pitch count down the stretch. He threw 117 pitches Sept. 10 be­fore pro­gres­sively di­al­ing down his to­tal as the play­offs ap­proached. If he was go­ing to back­track as the cal­en­dar moved this sea­son, match­ing his pitches thrown from his fi­nal six ap­pear­ances last sea­son would be dif­fi­cult.

Wed­nes­day, he walked the first bat­ter of the sev­enth in­ning to put his pitch count at 102. Then, walked the sec­ond bet­ter to up it to 109.

Here, the plan hit an ob­sta­cle. By wait­ing to start warm­ing up a pitcher af­ter the first bat­ter was walked, the Na­tion­als were forced into be­ing rigid with their pregame plan. Mad­dux came to the mound.

The op­tics were bad, at that point. Scherzer had thrown seven balls and five strikes. In part, this was what he was af­ter. He wanted to wade into quick­sand to see how he would re­spond. It was clear he was re­spond­ing poorly. His rare lo­ca­tion prob­lems and pitch count would sug­gest that he was fa­tigued, which, stud­ies have shown, is a time when the fre­quency of in­juries go up. But, he told Mad­dux he felt good.

“I was hon­est and say­ing ‘Hey, I feel strong right now,’” Scherzer said. “I felt like I could ex­e­cute pitches and get guys out. The curve­ball backed up on me, and I wasn’t able to ex­e­cute two more change­ups af­ter that. That’s the rea­son I walked that guy. But if you’re ask­ing me if I still felt strong af­ter two walks, I did. I still felt like if I had to, I could eas­ily have faced Matt Kemp. But I un­der­stand the sit­u­a­tion in a game. But from a phys­i­cal stand­point, that’s what I felt. I still had those bul­lets left in my arm. Hey, it’s not fun. I’ve al­ways said you learn more about your­self af­ter pitch 100 than you do in the first 100. Well, this is time to learn.”

Scherzer walked the next bat­ter, rookie Ozzie Al­bies, on five pitches while the bullpen scram­bled. Left-handed Sammy So­lis had been warm­ing up and ap­peared to have enough time to be ready for Al­bies, though Baker said af­ter­ward he was slated to face left-handed Na­tion­als tor­men­tor Fred­die Free­man. Now, right-handed Bran­don Kint­zler joined So­lis in the bullpen.

Up next was right-handed Dansby Swan­son. Scherzer was at 114 pitches, the most he had thrown since Aug. 7. Swan­son hit a 1-0, 85-mph slider to left while Kint­zler warmed in the bullpen. Left fielder Howie Ken­drick made his sec­ond field­ing mis­take of the evening when he threw all the way home in­stead of hit­ting the cut­off man. Swan­son went to sec­ond on the throw. That opened first base and brought Free­man up. The Na­tion­als chose to in­ten­tion­ally walk him. Scherzer, at 116 pitches, was done. Scherzer gave up five of the six runs in the sev­enth in­ning of an 8-2 loss.

“Like I said, that was the game plan be­fore the night started,” Baker said. “I know it looked ugly. It looked ugly to you. It looked ugly to us and the fans and ev­ery­body else. But if you have a game plan, you want to stick with it as much and as long as you can.”

The ef­fects of the night were mul­ti­ple. Scherzer’s pref­er­ence of a higher pitch count was ful­filled. If he av­er­ages 100 pitches in his fi­nal three out­ings, he will hit 495 pitches for Septem­ber. He threw 530 last Septem­ber. So, he would be around two in­nings of work short of that to­tal.

Baker was again sec­ond-guessed for leav­ing a start­ing pitcher on the mound for an ex­tended pe­riod. It’s a rep­u­ta­tion he will never shake.

Last, the de­ci­sion could cost Scherzer a sec­ond con­sec­u­tive Cy Young Award. Kint­zler re­placed Scherzer and al­lowed a first-pitch grand slam to Kemp. That bloated Scherzer’s line to seven earned runs al­lowed. His ERA has gone from 2.19 to 2.59 in his last two starts. He is now tied with Los An­ge­les’ Clay­ton Ker­shaw in WHIP. Scherzer has a sig­nif­i­cant lead in bat­ting av­er­age against. Ker­shaw has a strong lead in ERA (2.12). Scherzer has a large lead in strike­outs and in­nings pitched. Ker­shaw has a sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter strike­out-to-walk ra­tio and their OPS against is al­most even (.585 for Ker­shaw, .577 for Scherzer).

The Na­tion­als locked into their pregame plan and pushed through it. It, as Baker said, was not at­trac­tive to watch, plus the re­sults were poor and dinged Scherzer’s can­di­dacy for the ul­ti­mate pitch­ing award. He, how­ever, ac­com­plished what he wanted and em­pha­sized how strong he feels last in the sea­son.

“This is why th­ese games are mean­ing­ful,” Scherzer said. “I know [the me­dia keeps] throw­ing that word around. I needed to go out [Wed­nes­day] and pitch deep into this ball­game. And I did.”


Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als start­ing pitcher Max Scherzer threw 116 pitches in a loss on Wed­nes­day to the At­lanta Braves. De­spite giv­ing up five runs in the sev­enth in­ning, the Na­tion­als fol­lowed Scherzer’s pref­er­ence of a higher pitch count as the hurler pre­pares for the post­sea­son.

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