As Deadline looms, Verlander gives Mets' hopes a lift

July 20th, 2023

NEW YORK -- One way for to quiet trade talk is to continue pitching exactly the way he did on Wednesday night.

The logic goes something like this: If the Mets are anywhere close to National League Wild Card contention in the days leading up to the Aug. 1 Trade Deadline, they’ll have reason to keep their roster intact in hopes of a late playoff run. For the Mets to be anywhere close to Wild Card contention, they’ll need Verlander and Max Scherzer pitching at their best.

Verlander did his part in a 5-1 win over the White Sox at Citi Field, holding Chicago to one run over eight innings on a rather efficient 100 pitches. He collected seven strikeouts, allowing three hits and a walk, and he might have thrown a complete game if not for a rocky, 30-pitch seventh, which included a Luis Robert Jr. solo homer.

“I’ve been inching closer to where I want to be,” said Verlander, who lowered his ERA to 1.74 over his last five starts.

Improvement has not been linear for the 40-year-old Verlander, who spent April on the injured list and was inconsistent for much of May and June, battling his mechanics, his feel for his slider and at times his control. But everything clicked on Wednesday, as Verlander struck out three of the first four batters he faced and relied on early contact the rest of the way. His defense helped. With one out in the third inning, Brett Baty made a backhanded play on the run to rob Oscar Colás of an infield hit. In the fourth, Jeff McNeil made a running grab in right field to take one away from Tim Anderson.

By the time Verlander began laboring in the seventh, throwing more than 14 pitches in an inning for the first time all night, the Mets held a healthy lead thanks to Baty’s leadoff home run in the third inning and a four-run fourth against White Sox starter Touki Toussaint. Francisco Alvarez drove in a run during that rally to increase his team-leading monthly total to 14 RBIs in July.

But Alvarez’s most significant contribution came behind the plate, where he caught Verlander’s finest start of the season.

“Yeah, he had his good stuff tonight,” White Sox first baseman Gavin Sheets said. “It’s just a veteran guy who threw the ball well.”

The result was a third consecutive win for the Mets, who picked up a game on the Phillies to inch within seven games of a National League Wild Card spot. While that may seem insignificant with more than two months left in the regular season, it has real implications on how the Mets might attack the Trade Deadline in less than two weeks. If the path to the postseason feels out of reach as the Deadline approaches, general manager Billy Eppler is likely to sell assets to improve the organization heading into 2024. But if a glimmer of hope exists, the Mets could decide not to sell, or even to become modest buyers.

Verlander, whose name has popped up in trade rumors despite his unwieldy contract and no-trade clause, is at the center of everything. So is Scherzer, who is also coming off his best start of the season with seven scoreless innings last time out against the Dodgers.

“I think everybody knows when the Trade Deadline is,” Verlander said. “Nobody has given any indication of what exactly we’re going to do. I think we need to stay together here in the clubhouse and keep doing what we’ve been doing, which is coming in here with optimism every single day, doing what we can do individually to win a ballgame, doing what we can do as a group to win a ballgame and see how far that takes us.”

This week, featuring six games against the White Sox and Red Sox -- each in fourth place in their division -- felt like the Mets’ last chance to prove themselves before the Deadline. Two games in, they are 2-0.

It’s not a panacea, but it is certainly a start.

“I don’t think you can look at a point in time and say, ‘OK, you have to do it. You have to do it now,’” Verlander said. “I think we’ve been saying that all year. You never want to wait around. You dig yourself into a hole, and you’ve got to dig yourself out.”