CINCINNATI — Max Scherzer looked like Max Scherzer on Tuesday night.
Coming back from an oblique injury for his first start in seven weeks, Scherzer was his typical, dominant self in New York’s 1-0 loss to the Reds.
“I felt great. No issues whatsoever today,” Scherzer said. “I felt strong all the way through. It never tightened up on me. That’s a good thing.”
Scherzer showcased precise command of his fastball and slider to dissect Cincinnati’s lineup. He threw first-pitch strikes to 17 of the 21 Reds he faced, including 15 of the last 16. He went 2-0 on the second hitter and never fell behind that way again. Only one Red got to a three-ball count.
“I was really impressed with his command more than anything,” manager Buck Showalter said.
“It’s like he never missed a beat,” said catcher James McCann. “From the first battery of the game, he attacked the strike zone early and often. He got into friendly counts for us and then put the hitters away relatively quickly.”
Scherzer looked that precise after the longest in-season layoff of his major-league career.
“It’s very hard, but it doesn’t surprise me,” shortstop Francisco Lindor said. “He’s one of the best for a reason. I was kind of expecting that.”
“The guy has been doing that for a long time,” said Cincinnati’s Mike Moustakas, who eventually delivered the game-winning sacrifice fly in the ninth. “He’s just relentless in everything he does. He commands every pitch that he throws. That’s why he is who he is.”
Scherzer was especially pleased with his slider, the execution of which had eluded him during his brief tenure with the Binghamton Rumble Ponies. On Tuesday, he generated seven swings-and-misses with the slider and finished four of his 11 strikeouts with the pitch.
“I really felt like I had a really good slider tonight,” Scherzer said. “My rehab starts, my slider really wasn’t breaking the right way, and over this turn in the bullpen, I thought I found something with my slider. I knew I was going to need it against this team and was able to execute that and make the adjustment. That pitch really helped me navigate their lineup tonight.”
“He wasn’t searching for it,” said McCann. “He knew he could land it really at any time, whether it was early in the count or as a putaway pitch. In the rehab starts, he felt he didn’t have that same feel to throw it for strikes or bury it when he needed to.”
“He never wastes a chance to get better,” Showalter said.
That included his time in Binghamton when Scherzer worked with McCann for an outing. The Mets’ typical backstop had caught only one of Scherzer’s first eight starts before his stint on the IL.
“James did an outstanding job tonight. I really felt comfortable with him, even more so this game,” Scherzer said. “He did a great job of making adjustments. It was very easy to throw to him tonight.”
The Mets remained cautious with Scherzer, pulling him after 79 pitches in six innings. (He’d thrown 80 in 4 2/3 innings in his last rehab start.) While Scherzer preferred to get to 90 or 95 pitches, New York was wary of having him throw two more innings than he did in that last rehab game.
“Buck is going to make the best decision for the ballclub, for my health and my long-term health,” Scherzer said. “Maybe they just didn’t want to send me out for the seventh. I understand it. Hopefully I can get to that 95 pitch count next time out.”
Scherzer is expected to be ready on regular rest, which would mean a Sunday showdown with Miami’s Sandy Alcantara. (If Chris Bassitt returns from the COVID-19 IL in the meantime, the Mets could opt to push Scherzer back and have him start the series opener in Atlanta against the second-place Braves.)
Game 81 on the season Tuesday was only Start 9 for Scherzer, and the Mets’ sincere hope is he’ll make significantly more than nine in the next 81. New York’s Cy Young Award-winning duo of Scherzer and Jacob deGrom started just those nine times in the season’s mathematical first half; the club hopes it’s something closer to triple that in the second half, now that Scherzer’s back and deGrom is on a rehab assignment that should have him back by the end of the month.
Despite that, New York is on a pace to win 100 games even. It’s just the third time the team has won 50 of its first 81 games, the last of them coming in 1988.
“We just play good, fundamental baseball,” Scherzer said. “We don’t beat ourselves a lot of times, and we take advantage of a lot of mistakes that other teams make. … It’s going to take the exact same formula to continue to play at this level for the rest of the year. To be on top, you’ve got to be consistent.”
There are, of course, a couple of additions to that formula in Scherzer and deGrom.
“Other than the loss, there was a lot of good tonight for Max,” Showalter said. “Hopefully it bodes well for what we hope is the rest of the season.”
— The Athletic‘s C. Trent Rosecrans contributed to this report.
(Photo: Katie Stratman / USA Today)