Scherzer pitches simulated game, nears return

WASHINGTON -- Max Scherzer is getting closer to returning.

The Washington Nationals ace threw a simulated game Tuesday, a key step in his progression toward returning to active duty. Facing a trio of Washington players that included Howie Kendrick, Gerardo Parra and Ryan Zimmerman, Scherzer tossed about 30 pitches during two innings on the main mound at Nationals Park.

Prior to that, he threw roughly 30 pitches during warm-ups in the bullpen.

The mock outing, which featured the veteran hurler's game-day walkout song ("Still D.R.E") and Parra's walk-up music ("Baby Shark"), comes three days after Scherzer threw his first bullpen session since going back on the injured list with back issues.

Manager Davey Martinez was encouraged by what he saw and heard Tuesday.

"He said he felt really good," Martinez said. "But the whole deal with this injury is his recovery, so we'll see how he feels tomorrow."

If Scherzer feels like his normal self Wednesday, the plan would be for him to throw a light bullpen session Thursday. As for whether Scherzer would work another simulated game or perhaps go on a rehab assignment before being activated, Martinez was noncommittal. One thing the Nats skipper does know is that when his ace eventually returns, his workload will be restricted.

"If we decided to pitch him in a game," Martinez said, "it wouldn't be 100 pitches right away. I can tell you that right now. We really gotta be very careful where we're at with him right now. This is to get him through the rest of the season and then some."

Scherzer has been dealing with back issues since the end of June, a month in which he went 6-0 with a 1.00 ERA and won National League pitcher of the month honors. On July 13, after skipping the All-Star Game in an effort to get healthy, the three-time Cy Young winner was placed on the injured list with a mid-back strain, retroactive to July 10. He returned from the IL to face the Colorado Rockies on July 25, when he allowed three runs in five innings and threw a season-low 86 pitches. Four days later, Scherzer landed on the IL again (back-dated to July 26) with a mild rhomboid strain.

In other Nationals news, slugger Juan Soto returned to the starting lineup for Tuesday's game against the Cincinnati Reds and hit his 25th home run of the season in the fourth inning.

Soto missed Monday's series opener after spraining his right ankle while rounding third base against the New York Mets on Sunday. The injury appeared serious at the time, but X-rays were negative on the 20-year-old outfielder, who fractured the same ankle in 2017. Despite walking gingerly around the clubhouse Monday, Soto was cleared for action a day later.

"He checked all the boxes," Martinez said of Soto. "We got him on the field. He ran angles. He turned like he was running the bases. The biggest thing was the turns. He said he felt great. He was bugging me yesterday to go in the game, and I told him just sit down and relax. But he was not happy that he had to sit and watch. He kept bugging me to pinch-hit. I was like, just sit down. You'll be fine."

Soto entered Tuesday hitting .288 with 24 home runs and 77 RBIs in 107 games. His 75 walks ranked third in the NL.

Scherzer is 9-5 with a 2.41 ERA. Despite spending time on the shelf, his 189 strikeouts were tied for most in the NL entering Tuesday.

The Nats went into Tuesday's action with a 63-55 record. They were in second place in the NL East, six games behind the Atlanta Braves, and in possession of the top wild-card spot in the NL.