WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Max Scherzer returned to using his normal two-finger fastball grip to complete his Minor League start on Thursday afternoon, a significant step forward in his progress from the stress fracture in his right ring finger.
All spring, Scherzer had been forced to throw his fastball with a modified three-finger grip to help alleviate the pressure on his knuckle. But as he mixed in both fastball grips through his 54-pitch three inning outing against Mets Minors Leaguers on the back fields of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, he said he felt no pain.
After this encouraging outing, the Nationals are now ready to take the reigns off Scherzer and, according to pitching coach Mike Maddux, Scherzer is scheduled to make his Grapefruit League debut Wednesday afternoon against the Cardinals. Maddux said he did not see a radar gun on Scherzer's outing, but said he could tell from the hitters' swings -- often late and almost no balls hit hard -- that his velocity was normal.
"I thought the ball came out good," Maddux said. "His arm worked well, his body worked well. He didn't really fatigue. Stuff was there, the shape of all five pitches were there. We just got a little challenge with the strike zone at times, which first time out, you can understand that."
Scherzer's status for Opening Day is still uncertain.
He did not want to speculate, but estimated if he can get three more starts during Spring Training he could extend his pitch count up near 100 by the start of the season. However, earlier in the day Thursday, Nats manager Dusty Baker acknowledged Scherzer would probably not be ready for Opening Day, although he would not commit to Scherzer beginning the season on the disabled list.
"We're just trying to get Max on the field," Baker said prior to Thursday's 3-1 victory against the Mets. "Opening Day -- I'm sure it's important to him, but not [as] important as the rest of the season. After Opening Day, then what? Then you're on the second day."
But Thursday was an encouraging day in this slow recovery process for Scherzer, even if he maintained he is still day-to-day. If he is healthy come Opening Day, Scherzer will almost certainly push himself to make that start.
And the Nats have trusted Scherzer so far to push himself this spring, even when he arrived still feeling the effects of the finger injury. He started playing catch and playing long toss before they expected, thanks to experimenting with the three-finger grip. He got on a mound and has progressed more quickly than they initially guessed, and perhaps he can defy expectations again to be ready to start the season on time.
"Athletes and champions have to push themselves," Baker said. "And sometimes you push yourself higher than you even know what you possess. Even so, that's the way of a champion, to push himself.
"And you know, we're not going to push him any harder than he's going to push himself. If there comes a time where we have to do what's best for him -- back him off -- then that's what we'll do. But right now, Max knows himself better than we do. He's not going to jeopardize years for days."
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.