PHILADELPHIA — Max Scherzer retired the first 10 Philadelphia Phillies batters he faced Friday afternoon — planting a seed of anticipation that he might have something special going in his 2017 debut. The guy did throw two no-hitters in a span of 2½ months in 2015, after all.
Scherzer’s brief flirtation with a third career no-no perished with Howie Kendrick's double in the fourth inning. Then Scherzer spent the rest of his day flirting with hypothermia.
The Phillies and Washington Nationals took the field to a game-time temperature of 48 degrees — not counting a blustery, 20 mph wind that blew hot dog wrappers to every corner of Citizens Bank Park and prompted fans to take their promotional Phillies stocking caps out of their wrappers and wear them in the name of self-preservation.
Scherzer, who pitched in short sleeves, just kept mixing pitches and making do in a state of blissful oblivion to the conditions. He seemed taken aback by the suggestion that a raw spring day in the Northeast might throw him off his game.
"What’s one thin layer of [sleeve] gonna do?" he said. "If it’s in the 30s, you might see the sleeves. But I was fine today. I never once felt cold.
"As a starting pitcher, you deal with elements every time out. It’s rain. It’s heat. It’s cold. It’s wind. You can come up with an excuse every single time out. You never get to pitch in perfect conditions. As a starting pitcher, you just have to mentally throw through that. It never even enters your thought process. The fact that it was cold and windy? That’s part of the gig."
Scherzer’s part of the gig versus Philly consisted of 6⅔ innings of two-run ball in a 7-6 victory that raised Washington’s record to 3-1. Closer Blake Treinen and Washington’s young bullpen suffered some hiccups for the second straight game and turned a big lead into a late adventure, but the Nationals' starting rotation continues to impress and the offense has been productive enough to give the relievers some margin for error.
Through four games and 25⅔ innings, Scherzer and fellow starters Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez have logged a combined 2.10 ERA with 23 strikeouts and only five walks. Jeremy Guthrie is scheduled to start Saturday in place of Joe Ross, who continues to get regular work with Triple-A Syracuse until the off days dissipate and Washington needs to introduce a regular fifth starter to the mix.
Scherzer is the guy who general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Dusty Baker are conditioned to worry about the least, but this is not the typical spring for him. In January, when Scherzer had to back out of pitching in the World Baseball Classic, it was revealed that he suffered a stress fracture in his right ring finger in August.
The injury didn’t prevent Scherzer from going 8-0 with a 2.97 ERA down the stretch and joining Gaylord Perry, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez and Roy Halladay as the sixth pitcher to win a Cy Young Award in both leagues. But it forced Scherzer to change his approach and throw with a three-finger grip rather than the customary two for much of spring training. He returned to his conventional grip for his final two starts in the Grapefruit League.
A strike-throwing machine as a rule, Scherzer wasn’t his typical self in the Nationals’ road opener. He threw only 61 percent of his pitches for strikes, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That was his lowest ratio in any start since August 2014.
More disappointing to Scherzer, after he walked Brock Stassi and Tommy Joseph on eight straight pitches to begin the seventh inning, Baker had to come out and lift his starter. For a pitcher with a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.93 — 10th-best in MLB history — that qualified as a major sin.
"When you’re at the end of the line like that, you’ve got to finish your starts," Scherzer said. "You can’t go out there and throw ball four and ball eight."
One positive takeaway from the start: Scherzer is developing a nice early chemistry with Washington’s new catcher, Matt Wieters. And history suggests Scherzer will keep working and tinkering to address any rough edges in his game.
Rizzo was the head of amateur scouting in Arizona when the Diamondbacks selected Scherzer out of the University of Missouri with the 11th pick in the 2006 draft, and the GM fell in love with Scherzer in part because of the "dislike" he showed for hitters. More than a decade later, that hasn’t changed.
"He wants to get you out, but he wants to strike you out," Rizzo said. "From pitch one — good stuff, bad stuff, in between stuff — he is in full 100 percent attack mode at all times. It doesn’t matter if it’s 12 degrees or 100 degrees."
Or 48 degrees with 20 mph winds. The 45,121 fans in attendance Friday afternoon went home and thawed out. Max Scherzer looked back on it as just another day at the office.