Max Scherzer never used to be the kind of ace people worried about.
In the New York Mets dugout, the ace they worried about was Jacob DeGrom. He was the one they worried would throw a pitch, shake his arm and walk off into a few months of oblivion. Before the 2022 season, the Mets signed Scherzer to be the sure thing, the steady ace they struggled to develop for the last half-decade as Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard and others watched their careers devolve into fragility, too. Even at his age, Scherzer was a known commodity. The Mets knew Scherzer would take the ball.
But by the time Scherzer took the mound at Nationals Park on Sunday, no one — including Scherzer himself — knew exactly what the 38-year-old with the 5.56 ERA had to give. The answer, for one day, was that he had enough.
“Physically good enough that I will be able to avoid the IL and now get back in the routine and get going,” Scherzer said. “That’s the most important thing, to be able to avoid the IL, be out there, be healthy and throw the ball well.”
Scherzer threw five innings of one-run ball against a Nationals lineup that has MLB’s 26th-highest OPS but has proved it is not a pushover. His fastball touched 96 a few times — not as often as it used to but as often as he needed. In the second game of what was basically a doubleheader, the Mets pulled him after just 83 pitches. He had not thrown his usual 100 pitches or so in a while. They had to be careful. Besides, he said, he was not at full cardio strength.
“Actually, today, this was probably the most winded I’ve ever been in a start,” said Scherzer, who has made 427 of them in his career. “I was huffing and puffing. I wasn’t tired. I was just out of breath because the last six days I haven’t done a thing. I’ve been sitting in a neck brace. I feel like now I can get through this start, now I can get back in my routine, get my running in, that way I’m physically fit and can get out there and actually pitch better.”
In the past, Scherzer’s seeming certainty that he is through the worst of things would be plenty of evidence the future Hall of Famer would be just fine. He always seemed to know exactly what was wrong and how long it would take to fix it; he seemed to know exactly when he was out of harm’s way or still at risk. These days require more skepticism. Scherzer has flashed normality at times during his Mets tenure, only to see something disrupt his ability to establish it consistently.
“Max is probably the highlight [today], Max feeling good physically and getting through it,” Mets Manager Buck Showalter said. “He hasn’t been able to do a lot of cardiovascular work with this, and you could tell he was a little winded there toward the end. But I would have signed in blood for him to get through five innings and get his pitch count up.”
Scherzer had not pitched since May 3 because of back soreness, then a neck spasm, and that day he gave up six runs in 3⅓ innings to the Detroit Tigers. Before that, he had not pitched since April 19 because he was serving a 10-game suspension for a sticky pitching hand. From 2015 through 2021, no one threw more innings than Scherzer, and it wasn’t close. This year, as of Mother’s Day, Scherzer has not thrown enough innings to qualify for league leads.
He dropped his appeal of that suspension, which seemed out of character for a player who once offered to disrobe on the field when it was suggested he might be hiding sticky stuff on his belt. He said publicly he knew any appeal would be heard by Major League Baseball, so even if he repeated his explanation about using only legal substances, he probably wouldn’t win. What went unsaid was that serving a suspension gave Scherzer time to figure out how to deal with a balky back before it sent him to the injured list.
Ultimately, he did avoid the injured list. But his return was delayed. So was his next start, because Scherzer’s neck seized up last week, just like it did before Game 5 of the 2019 World Series, like it did every now and then during his Nationals tenure. In those days, he would wait a day or two and return, no worse for the wear.
Yet as recently as Friday, Showalter was wondering whether Scherzer’s spasming neck would withstand a bullpen session. They have legitimate reason to wonder about Scherzer, about his oblique and his back and his neck, about all the things that have forced him to the injured list more times in the year and a half of his Mets career (three) than in his entire career beforehand. His velocity was down in his last start against the Tigers. He was getting fewer swings and misses this year than in any since 2014. His velocity looked better Sunday. The Nationals whiffed on 39 percent of the pitches at which they swung.
“I don’t think he had to push to get to [his velocity]. You could see him in his other outings, he’d go get it some when he had to. But you could tell it was max effort to get there,” Showalter said. “It was pretty easy for him to get to today. The ball was coming out of his hand; you could tell from the dugout, it was coming out of his hand. You look for late life, and he had that late life he has when he’s effective.”
So for today, and perhaps for five days from now, too, everything is fine. But no one used to even wonder. Scherzer would say the slew of injuries he has experienced with the Mets is mere coincidence, not the sign of an inevitable physical breakdown. Presented with the idea time might be catching up with him, Scherzer rejects it outright.
“It’s baseball. Do you realize how many little things I’ve dealt with?” Scherzer asked, defiant, at his locker a few weeks ago. “Always. I’ve gone a whole year with 33 starts and only had three starts where I felt good. The other 30 I dealt with something. I once had a broken finger. I was miserable for a year and didn’t miss a start.”
Scherzer argued the same thing one afternoon in spring training. He explained, injury by injury, moment by moment, how everything that has gone wrong since he got to the Mets was the result of something identifiable — not something anyone could chalk up to age. He knew exactly when he pushed too hard. He says he knows exactly what he needs to do to manage the back and neck long term. The one thing Scherzer doesn’t articulate — the one thing time might best explain — is why those aches and pains never used to stop him.
Maybe he is back for good, fixed and whole, durable again. But the uncomfortable fact for Scherzer and the underachieving Mets is that these days, it is reasonable to wonder.