With 9 Ks, Nats ace Max Scherzer looks ready for opening day

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              Washington Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer (31) delivers in the first inning during an exhibition spring training baseball game agains the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday, March 11, 2019, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — From the pitch-accompanying grunts to the pawing at the mound with his cleats, from the nine Ks to the 14 consecutive outs, Max Scherzer sure looked to be ready for the regular season.

After giving up a combined eight runs over 8 2/3 innings across his preceding pair of Grapefruit League starts, Scherzer was much more Scherzer-like Saturday in an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals. The three-time Cy Young Award winner allowed one run and four hits in six innings, with zero walks in his next-to-last outing before taking the mound opening day against the New York Mets.

“He knows it’s getting to be that time. He’s got one more outing after this and then it’s game time,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “So I expected him to go out there and do exactly what he did.”

Scherzer left with a 5-1 lead, before St. Louis came back to win 8-5 by hitting a pair of homers off reliever Kyle Barraclough, then scoring five runs in the ninth off Nationals closer Sean Doolittle.

Knowing that he wasn’t facing the Cardinals’ real lineup, Scherzer said, he felt he didn’t have to hold anything back or worry about tipping off how he might approach meaningful at-bats during the season. Instead, he could “really be aggressive and throw all the pitches I want to throw. Try to strike guys out. Really make this as in-season a start as possible and try to finish strong.”

That he did, leaving to a standing ovation from the home crowd after striking out Tyler O’Neill for the last out of the sixth. Scherzer threw 87 pitches, 63 for strikes.

Scherzer also made sure to work on particular pitches — one example: throwing his changeup out of the zone when he wants it there — and his coordination with new catcher Yan Gomes.

“There’s a few small things that I still need to refine. There’s some executions that I can continue to execute a little bit better,” said Scherzer, the runner-up to Mets righty Jacob deGrom — who he’ll face in the opener — for last year’s NL Cy Young Award after going 18-7 with a 2.53 ERA. “The intensity, basically the first inning through the first five innings — to be able to be strong, especially through those five, that was a good sign today and something I look forward to taking into the regular season.”

NOTES: LHP Doolittle entered in the ninth with a 5-3 lead but gave up four hits and a walk on 28 pitches, the last of which Andrew Knizner took deep for a three-run homer. Neither Martinez nor Doolittle sounded too concerned; both said the aim was to work on some offspeed pitches and throw more than he had so far this spring. Doolittle had gone four scoreless innings, allowing just one hit in all, until Saturday. “I started to get a little tired,” he said. “The line is really ugly, but I kind of needed a wakeup call like that. My first four outings, I kind of slept-walked through them. … It was good to work on some stuff. Unfortunately some of it backfired. But that’s a spring training outing in a nutshell right there.” … With OF Michael A. Taylor sidelined by a strained left knee and hip, Wilmer Difo started in center field, adding yet another spot where he could be used in his role as a “super utility” player. One other place? Martinez said Difo might be his emergency catcher. As for Difo’s outing in CF against St. Louis, Martinez said: “You know what? I actually liked him. He had pretty good jumps on all the balls. So we’re going to get him back out there a few more times.”