When the line drive hit his knee, sending one of the toughest players on the Nationals to his knees, then to his back, writhing in agony, everything seemed to crumble.
Max Scherzer spun and stumbled and fell to the ground, got up, stumbled, and went down again. The 100-mph line drive that had just ricocheted off his knee left him in more pain than he had ever shown in a Nationals uniform.
For a moment, the Nationals’ season seemed to flash in his every grimace — and there were many grimaces, so many that it took him a few seconds to communicate to trainer Paul Lessard what part of his body actually hurt.
Eventually, Lessard began to test Scherzer’s left knee, pushing and prodding. Eventually, both of them realized everything was intact. Scherzer pushed himself to his feet and started wandering around the mound, a slower, less-determined walk than his usual prowl, but in the same path.
“I knew I took it good. A lot of times, as soon as you get up, once you get hit like that, you can walk around. As soon as I started walking around, it’s not broke, but it really hurt,” said Scherzer, who had worried about a blister on his throwing hand before getting hit. “I just needed to catch my breath, and let everything kind of relax.”
Lessard, Dusty Baker and Mike Maddux stood nearby as he paced, then bounced, then jumped a bit. Scherzer convinced them to let him try. He threw three warm-up pitches.
“Fortunately, it hit the inside part of that knee, and somehow, some way, that didn’t affect how I landed,” Scherzer said. “Something with the left leg, because you put so much torque into it, you worry how you affect your arm slot, everything. But I could feel my weight get onto my knee and not have that be a problem, so once I threw a few warm-up pitches, I was good to go. ”
Baker looked him in the eye. He told Scherzer the knee would get stiff. Scherzer told Baker he would let him know if it did.
“Max, he’s a man. He’s a warrior,” Baker said. “The average guy would’ve just taken it in, but Max, he wanted to pitch. That motivated the other guys, to see how badly he wanted it.”
Hitters absorb 100-mph fastballs, head to first, and stay in the game. Catchers take foul tips off the arm, shake it off, and stay in the game. Such a recovery is not totally remarkable. Bryce Harper chuckled as he remembered Scherzer’s reaction. Trea Turner said he was just glad it wasn’t Scherzer’s arm. But what made the moment so terrifying was Scherzer’s agony, visible and unfiltered. It was a display unprecedented in his Nationals career.
“Obviously,” Scherzer said. “The pain was pretty intense.”
Scherzer sprinting to back up third base after a flyball to right field was telling. He allowed two runs in that inning, conceding the lead. But, with the bullpen still reeling after letting Game 1 of the doubleheader slip away, Scherzer headed back out for the fifth. He struck out the side on nine pitches, an immaculate inning, the second in Nationals history. Jordan Zimmermann threw one in May of 2011, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“There was a huge rush of adrenaline [after the line drive],” Scherzer said. “Once I realized I could get into that knee, your mind is now focusing on your knee, kind of protecting it and making sure you can go 100 percent into it. Like I said, the blister didn’t hurt as much.”
Ultimately, Scherzer faltered in the sixth, victimized by three line drive hits but saved by an inning-ending out at home when a heads-up play from Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon caught over-aggressive Brock Stassi. Scherzer, standing a few feet from home plate to back up the throw, pumped his fist and let out a yell.
His night ended there, after six innings of three-run ball — officially a quality start, if one cares about such things. He allowed nine hits, struck out eight, and did not walk a batter, keeping his team in a game it ultimately won despite more bullpen misadventure. Before the line drive hit his knee, Scherzer missed a double by a foot. After the line drive, he moved a runner from second to third with a liner to right. He simply would not stop. Scherzer has now gone at least six innings in all of his starts this season.
Scherzer’s knee was not remarkably swollen after the game, and he said the plan is to put a patch on it for the next day or so to keep the swelling down. As for the blister, he has dealt with those before, and did not expect either ailment to cause him trouble moving forward.
“It’ll be fun for the next five days,” said Scherzer with a wry smile. He can smile now, having dodged a bullet despite being unable to dodge a baseball, still planning for his next start.