The easy choice, for Max Scherzer, would have been to start the first game of Tuesday’s doubleheader at Citi Field. Pitchers thrive on routine, and only the opening game had a scheduled time for the first pitch. Scherzer is a future Hall of Famer, and if he had insisted on the opener for his first home start as a Met, he could have had his way.
“They make the decision, but I always like pitching Game 2 because I like knowing what the bullpen situation’s at,” Scherzer said late Tuesday night, after the Mets had swept the San Francisco Giants. “There’s different things you can do to try to get more length if you need to. I kind of like having that pressure, like tonight. I really had seven innings circled. That was the mark I really, really, really wanted to hit.”
That mentality was not the reason the Mets made Scherzer the highest-paid player in baseball last December. Scherzer’s ability to overpower hitters, even at 37 years old, got him a three-year, $130 million deal in free agency. But a subtle gesture like Tuesday’s was part of the package, a sign that for all of his personal accomplishments, Scherzer is a team guy first.
Manager Buck Showalter found Scherzer in his office after the Mets won the first game, 5-4, on a single by Francisco Lindor in the 10th inning. Scherzer peppered his manager with questions — the start time, the weather — and Showalter thought he seemed like a colt, eager to be set free.
The Mets had used four relievers in the opener, giving Scherzer a goal and an urgency to meet it. Before Tuesday, only one pitcher in the majors, Nathan Eovaldi of the Boston Red Sox, had thrown 100 pitches in a game this season. Showalter set an even higher pitch limit for Scherzer: 110.
He would not need that many to reach his destination. Scherzer finished seven innings in 102 pitches, allowing just one hit, a two-out, run-scoring single by Darin Ruf in the sixth inning. Scherzer walked three, struck out 10 and won, 3-1, for his third victory in three starts.
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“He’s Max Scherzer — it’s the same thing you see every time he goes out there,” said Giants starter Logan Webb, who lost for the first time in 23 starts. “I didn’t know it was his home debut, so I was like, ‘Man, he’s going to probably do something pretty cool.’”
Webb witnessed something pretty cool last October — from Scherzer’s perspective, anyway — in the final game of the Giants’ division series with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Scherzer, who had started twice in the previous eight days, came out of the bullpen to clinch the series with his first career save.
It came with a price: Scherzer labored through his Game 2 start in the National League Championship Series and could not take the ball for Game 6 in Atlanta. But he did what he had to do for the Dodgers to get that far.
It is safe to say that Scherzer’s arm has recovered just fine. He looks exactly like the pitcher the Mets expected, with a 2.50 earned run average and 23 strikeouts in 18 innings. He retired his first eight hitters on Tuesday, walked Curt Casali, then set down the next nine in a row to turn over the lineup again.
“My rule of thumb is, when you get one time through the order, you’ve got something going,” Scherzer said. “You get two times through the order, you’ve got a shot. So for me, it was getting two times through the order, that’s when you start getting there, and in the seventh and eighth, that’s when it really comes into play.”
After a pair of two-out walks in the sixth, it seemed clear that Scherzer’s pitch count was getting too high to complete nine innings. Showalter did not relish the idea of pulling Scherzer from a no-hitter, and Ruf spared him the decision by pulling a clean single to left.
But Scherzer had thoroughly dominated the Giants; his best pitches, he said, were his high fastball and his cutter, which he buried in on the hands of the six left-handed hitters in their lineup — a sound strategy on a chilly, wind-whipped night.
Without sweat to help his grip, Scherzer said the baseball felt like a cue ball in his hand. It was frustrating, he said, but who could tell?
“This is just the level he competes at every time, so this is what you expect every time he’s out there,” catcher Tomas Nido said. “But I guess the plan was going a lot smoother than when it’s not one of those kinds of nights, because everything was working perfect.”
Even by Scherzer’s high standards, it was an extraordinary outing, just the fifth of his 401 career starts in which he allowed no more than one hit.
He fired two no-hitters for Washington in 2015, including a 17-strikeout gem against the World Series-bound Mets on the next-to-last day of the season in Flushing. That performance was one of the best in history, the only game ever in which a pitcher allowed no hits and no walks with more than 15 strikeouts. A teammate’s error kept Scherzer from perfection.
Now those dazzling Scherzer nights belong to the Mets — who, of course, have another ace, Jacob deGrom, on the injured list. They are 9-3, the only team in the N.L. East with a winning record, and made a strong early statement on Tuesday.
“We can compete with the best,” Scherzer said, complimenting the Giants, who had the most wins in the majors last season. “For us to be neck and neck with them both games shows that we’re a great ballclub as well.”