'Bring it on': Scherzer leads statement win vs. Braves

July 12th, 2022

ATLANTA -- The lone blight on Max Scherzer’s evening was still in the recent past on Monday when Eddie Rosario stepped to the plate with two outs in seventh. Standing on second base was Marcell Ozuna, who represented the tying run. Back in the dugout was Austin Riley, who had homered off Scherzer moments earlier. All around the Mets' ace, a sold-out Truist Park crowd thundered as loudly as it could.

Scherzer ignored it and went to work, jumping ahead of Rosario in the count. He wasted an 0-2 pitch and then came back with his silencer: an 88-mph cutter that caused Rosario to fly open and swing wildly at the baseball. When Rosario did, Scherzer whirled and slammed his fist toward the ground, letting out an audible roar of emotion.

He knew how important this game was, not just in the standings but for his ascending club’s psyche. He understood how significant it would be for the Mets to complete what became a 4-1 win over the Braves.

“This is what you play the game for,” Scherzer said. “You want to be in these situations. You want to be facing the best teams in the league. You want to be in races. You’ve got to rise to the occasion and match it.” 

Over the past weeks and months, Scherzer has relayed as much to his teammates, many of whom have never appeared in postseason games. He told them that when their adrenaline spikes in front of hostile crowds, such as the 42,295 piled into Truist Park on a midsummer Monday, they should embrace it. “Play off of it,” he told them. “Bring it on.”

Such lessons, however, only carry so much weight in classrooms or clubhouses. Scherzer hadn’t had an opportunity to show them what he meant until this night, when the first-place Mets opened a three-game series against the second-place Braves.

Over the previous six weeks, Atlanta had taken a pair of hedge clippers to New York’s NL East lead, shaving it from 10.5 games on June 1 to just 1.5 games at the start of Monday’s play. And while a single victory in this head-to-head matchup won’t do much to decide the division, Scherzer called it “a measuring stick win” for a reason: It sent a message that the Mets will be a season-long force in this division race.

“Nights like tonight, facing a really good team on the road with an atmosphere that’s conducive for the home team, he’s a difference-maker,” manager Buck Showalter said of Scherzer. “It’s another reminder that when a pitcher is on top of his game, they win. And Max was on top of his game.”

During the offseason, the Mets signed Scherzer to the most lucrative per-annum contract in Major League history in hopes that he could tip the balance of power in the NL East. The idea was to wrest the division away from the Braves, who have won it four years running and are the defending World Series champions.

Monday demonstrated how realistic that blueprint might be. Dominating Atlanta over the game’s first six innings, Scherzer retired 20 of the first 21 batters he faced from a lineup that entered the night third in the Majors in runs per game. That included the first eight in a row, then -- following a single by his former teammate Robinson Canó -- another 12 straight. It was not until Riley homered to snap the streak that the Braves began threatening Scherzer, who allowed a double to Ozuna before retiring Rosario to escape the inning.

Scherzer’s final line included nine strikeouts and no walks, bringing his ERA to 0.69 in two outings since returning from the injured list. 

“For his second start, that was really, really good,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. 

Added Showalter: “There were very few things to be upset about.”

The raucous atmosphere was never going to affect Scherzer, who has pitched in more than two dozen playoff games over the years and an even greater number of pennant-race tests. Of greater note was the way his teammates responded to the clamor, including Pete Alonso (who drove home two runs to extend his MLB lead to 72), Luis Guillorme (who set a personal best with his second homer of the season) and Edwin Díaz (who, pitching on a third consecutive day for the first time in 14 months, struck out the side on 11 pitches for the save).

By that point, most Mets were either hanging over the railing of the third-base dugout or perched atop the bench behind it, watching as closely as the remaining members of the sellout crowd.

This test, the Mets passed. More measuring-stick type games will follow, and with each one that does, Scherzer’s team will be a little more familiar with what it takes to win them. 

“We’re not stupid. We know the good teams in this division,” Scherzer said. “The line between good and great gets smaller and smaller in these situations, and so you really have to be on your ‘A’ game to go out there and have success.”