WASHINGTON -- Hampered by injuries and inconsistency all season, the Mets' veteran starting rotation is drawing closer to full strength. Carlos Carrasco is on the mend, on track to return from an elbow issue later this week. Justin Verlander is back on a regular turn, after beginning the season on the injured list. And Max Scherzer returned to the mound Sunday, past the latest hurdle -- a bout of neck spasms -- in what’s been a disjointed year to date.
Which is why it was a welcome sight for the Mets to see Scherzer looking much like his old self for much of their 8-2 win over the Nationals. After the Mets completed and dropped Saturday’s suspended game, 3-2, in the opener, Scherzer delivered five innings of one-run ball in his first start since May 3 to help New York salvage the nightcap of its doubleheader at Nationals Park.
Now the hope for Scherzer and the Mets is that it was the kind of outing that gets him into a groove.
“[I’m] physically good enough that I am going to avoid the IL and now get back into a routine and get going,” Scherzer said. “That’s the most important thing. To avoid the IL, to go out there and be healthy and throw the ball well.”
Consistency in routine and results have proven elusive so far in 2023 for Scherzer, who missed his last start due to neck and also minor scapula issues, after his fastball velocity dropped concerningly a few weeks ago in Detroit. Prior to that, Scherzer served a 10-game sticky substance suspension that, in conjunction with a string of rainouts, kept him off the mound for two full weeks.
As a result, his production suffered, to the tune of a 5.56 ERA entering Sunday’s start and questions about his health and future. Meanwhile, the Mets’ improvised rotation floundered in his absence; the club entered the twin bill nightcap winners of only five of its last 19 games. Scherzer didn’t quell all of those concerns Sunday afternoon, but he certainly did enough to cut through the noise a bit.
“The highlight is Max feeling good physically getting through,” said manager Buck Showalter. “I’d have signed up in blood for him to get to five innings and get his pitch count up like that. So that's probably the highlight of the day, other than winning the game. Good outing for Max.”
Buoyed by the Mets’ biggest offensive outburst in two weeks, which included an eight-run fifth -- their highest-scoring inning of the season -- Scherzer struck out six and limited the Nationals to four baserunners across 83 pitches. He wiggled out of two early jams to limit the damage and retired his last seven hitters. Scherzer’s fastball averaged 94.1 mph -- 1 mph higher than his previous season average and in line with his 2022 average -- and maxed out at 95.2 mph. His spin rates also ticked higher on all five of his pitches, exceeding both his season averages and his readings from the May 3 dud in Detroit.
“I felt like I was able to get my arm slot back behind the ball and finally get synced up with my leg and upper body mechanics and the velo showed up, so that’s good news,” Scherzer said. “All my offspeed pitches felt like they had the right shape, that I was able to locate them and locate when I needed to with two strikes,” Scherzer said. “That’s my game: to pry your brain, and have multiple pitches I can throw at any time.”
Said Showalter: “I don’t think he had to push to get to [the velocity]. There were other outings where he'd go get it some, when it was a max effort to get it there. It was pretty easy for him to get to today. The ball was coming out his hand with that late life that he has when he’s effective.”
In short, Scherzer looked like Scherzer, which is exactly what the Mets need after an underwhelming first six weeks of the season for them and their high-priced rotation. Scherzer’s exit after five innings Sunday technically coincided with the team’s quarter pole of 2023; even with the victory, the Mets passed it a game under .500 (20-21).
“We’re a good team,” Scherzer said. “There is still so much baseball left. This is going to be a great fight all the way to the finish. I’m sure there are things everybody can say we wish we did better at. There are other things we have done well. It’s just about continuing to get into the season, get into a groove, and win series. This group can win. We know it. We’re all getting our footing and we’re getting it going.”