CINCINNATI – Max Scherzer’s first pitch to Reds leadoff hitter Jonathan India was a 94 mph fastball that fell in for a strike. Catcher James McCann immediately tossed the ball back to Scherzer, who was working quicker than even his usual brisk pace. Right back to work, Scherzer offered another fastball, and then another. An audible “dammit” escaped from Scherzer when he missed his spot and delivered a ball.
No matter Scherzer’s personal assessment of that initial at-bat, in truth the batter never stood a chance. He struck India out on five pitches, and the first inning came to an end just a moment later. That’s how Scherzer’s return from the injured list went on, featuring dominance and command, with a certain rhythm that only a three-time Cy Young award winner can possess.
Scherzer struck out 11 in six shutout innings and 79 pitches in the Mets’ 1-0 loss to the Reds on Tuesday night at Great American Ballpark. He gave up no runs and no walks and allowed just two hits in his sharpest outing since the end of April, when he hurled seven scoreless innings and struck out 10 in St. Louis. His season ERA is 2.26.
“I didn’t have any problems tonight,” Scherzer said. “I felt good, felt strong. I had nothing tighten up… As I get farther along, deeper into this and get away from this injury, that will allow me to be even more aggressive with the fastball and be able to step on it even more.”
Sign the Mets up for a performance like that every fifth day. Scherzer said, physically, he feels like can take the mound again in five days and the Mets will listen to him. That should line him up to pitch either the series finale against the Marlins on Sunday at Citi Field, or the series opener against the Braves on Monday in Atlanta.
Scherzer’s odyssey back to the rotation from his longest-career stint on the injured list featured seven weeks sidelined with an oblique strain, a dog bite on his pitching hand, two rehab starts, a steak and lobster dinner plus headphones for Mets minor leaguers, and a rain delay.
The one thing missing on Tuesday was a win. Mets hitters went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position and left nine men on base. The Reds walked it off against Seth Lugo in the ninth. Scherzer went home with a no-decision following his ninth start of the season.
“I was impressed at his command more than anything,” Buck Showalter said. “You had a rain delay. You had a couple of long innings. Other than the loss, didn’t score any runs, there were a lot of good things from Max’s standpoint. It’s been a long haul for him and all the people working with him. Hopefully it bodes well for the rest of the season.”
Mother Nature delayed Scherzer’s eventual dominance by 53 minutes. Though the rain clouds never passed over Great American Ballpark in that precautionary delay, Scherzer’s outing was clearly not affected at all by the late start. The veteran came out firing fastballs and sliders only in a first inning that was over after just nine pitches. Like his catcher James McCann said: “It’s like he never missed a beat.”
The only thing that held Scherzer back on Tuesday was his innings limit. The Mets did not want to push Scherzer past six innings in his first start in seven weeks, doing whatever was in their power to avoid a setback. Scherzer, of course, also wants nothing more than to stay healthy long enough to help bring a championship back to Queens for the first time in 36 years. The ace said he understood the decision to pull him after six innings, and he’s hopeful that he can throw 90-95 pitches his next time out.
“One thing that impresses me about Max is how well he knows himself, how well he knows his body,” said McCann, who was credited by Scherzer for calling a good game. “Similar to Jake, they make adjustments very quickly. It’s what makes them so good. It’s not taking them one inning, two innings. They’re making the adjustment pitch to pitch, batter to batter. That’s what makes him a future Hall of Famer.”
Unlike Jacob deGrom, who will often say he was nervous during his “first” outings back on the mound, whether it be in spring training or returning from an injury, Scherzer stopped feeling any nerves some time ago. As much as deGrom and Scherzer are often mentioned together, because both are two of the best pitchers in baseball, Scherzer’s long list of accomplishments, including a 2019 championship ring, has put him in a class of his own.
“Try starting Game 7 of the World Series,” said Scherzer of his steely emotions when he takes the hill.