Vintage form evades Scherzer in return from suspension

May 4th, 2023

DETROIT -- did not argue. There were no protestations. When manager Buck Showalter arrived at the pitcher’s mound in the fourth inning Wednesday night, Scherzer glanced to the sky as if searching there for answers. He handed Showalter the baseball, then went quietly to the dugout. Around Comerica Park, pockets of fans rose to give the longtime Tiger what appeared to be an earnest ovation. On this night, Scherzer was in no mood for the pleasantries.

And who could blame him? In his return from a 10-game sticky substance suspension that lasted 13 days because of a string of rainouts, Scherzer allowed six earned runs for the first time since joining the Mets. His ERA ballooned to 5.56, leaving questions about both his present and future.

The 8-1 loss to the Tigers, following a 6-5 defeat in the matinee of a doubleheader, gave the Mets eight losses in their last 10 games. That was only part of the issue facing Scherzer and the most expensive rotation in Major League history.

“He’s going to get better,” Showalter said afterward. “And we need to get better.”

From the start, Scherzer was the furthest thing from vintage, walking the leadoff batter and allowing a hard-hit infield single to the second man he faced. A sacrifice fly and a Spencer Torkelson RBI double cost him two runs in the first inning, before an Eric Haase long ball brought home another in the second. Finally, in the fourth, Scherzer unraveled, facing five batters and allowing four hits, including a Matt Vierling two-run homer.

As Vierling explained it afterward, the Tigers “had our ‘A’ stuff today and he didn’t” -- which was not a knock on Scherzer, whom Vierling also called “one of the best pitchers in the game.” It was a simple fact. Over his 3 1/3 innings, Scherzer averaged 92.7 mph on his fastball and topped out at 94.3, both figures down about half a mile per hour from where he had been before his suspension. His spin rates also fell on all five of his pitches, though that was likely linked to Scherzer’s reduced velocity.

Asked about the data, both Scherzer and Showalter chalked it up to the two-week gap between starts. In particular, Scherzer struggled to find his flow pitching out of the stretch, which the Tigers forced him to do for most of their first- and fourth-inning rallies.

“When he’s executing, he’s still a problem,” Haase said. “Even though it might not be 95-97 [mph], his 92-94, located pretty much wherever he wants, plays just as well. He made a couple mistakes today that, thankfully, we made him pay for and kind of changed the game early on.”

During fleeting moments, there were indeed glimpses of vintage Scherzer. In the third inning, he froze Nick Maton on a two-strike changeup that Francisco Álvarez framed neatly near the corner of the zone, then he fanned Torkelson on an even more biting version of the same pitch. An inning later, Scherzer punched out Haase on a slider that Álvarez again framed with his mitt.

But Scherzer never appeared comfortable. Asked multiple times afterward about his grip on the baseball, Scherzer said he made no material differences to his routine following his April 19 ejection from a game in Los Angeles. He used rosin as he typically does. He delivered pitches as he typically does. But the results weren’t typical.

Taken in the context of the Mets’ rotation, Scherzer’s performance was more than a little concerning. The Mets are still without Carlos Carrasco and José Quintana, who are recovering from injuries. Scherzer’s co-ace, Justin Verlander, is due back Thursday, though he also must prove his form and fitness at age 40. The long-term success of the Mets, as ever, will hinge on those two.

As for Scherzer, he’s at an age -- two months shy of his 39th birthday -- when every poor start comes with an extra dose of cynicism. Was it merely a bad outing or a sign of corrosion? Rust from a long layoff or a harbinger of things to come?

“For me, the number one thing was getting through this start healthy, back, good. Checkmark,” Scherzer said. “OK. Now we can get going again.”

To what level of success will become clear in time; at this point, there’s only so much the Mets can do but wait. They’ve cast their lot with Scherzer and Verlander, two aging giants of the game. Their season hinges on both still having plenty of greatness remaining.