Mets aces battle with batters, umpires, injuries and time
By Scott Miller
Starting pitchers for 200. It was not a Jeopardy question at Dodger Stadium this week. It was a prelude-to-Cooperstown and anticipating-the-stretch-run kind of number.
One day after the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw became only the fourth active pitcher to reach 200 career victories, all eyes were on Max Scherzer, who took 204 career wins and three extra days between starts to the mound with him in a game between the New York Mets and the Dodgers, two of the five highest-paid teams in Major League Baseball.
Scherzer, famously in tune with his body, downplayed the lingering soreness in his back following his last start that had caused the delay. He had managed back soreness before, he said, and it was nothing major, just an issue that occurs periodically and gradually disappears with rest. So the Mets pushed his next start from Sunday back to Wednesday and trusted that it would.
Trust and the health of their pitchers, however, has not been an easy concept to embrace for the Mets during their 10-day, 10-game West Coast swing.
Already playing without another active 200-game winner in Justin Verlander (right teres major strain), the Mets lost a starter to the 15-day injured list this week: Right-hander Carlos Carrasco developed inflammation in his elbow because of a small bone chip and was administered what manager Buck Showalter described as an anti-inflammatory “injection.”
So yes, all eyes — especially those of the Mets — were on Scherzer under a bright sun and clear skies Wednesday at Dodger Stadium. Showalter figured it would become evident what he and his team were “dealing with” within the first couple of innings.
But as so often happens in this game, what played out was far more than the manager could have imagined. Scherzer’s back appeared fine and the ace checked all of the boxes that needed checking for three innings, but then he was ejected by crew chief Phil Cuzzi before the start of the fourth inning because the umpires detected a foreign substance during one of their routine inspections.
Scherzer, who is animated in nearly all interactions, pleaded his case, furiously maintaining that the only thing he was using was the league-approved rosin. But the explanations did not persuade the umpiring crew.
“This was the stickiest that it has been since I’ve been inspecting hands, which now goes back three seasons,” said Dan Bellino, Wednesday’s home plate umpire, who, along with Cuzzi, spoke to a pool reporter. “Compared to the first inning, the level of stickiness — it was so sticky that when we touched his hand, our fingers were sticking to his hand. And whatever was on there remained on our fingers afterwards for a couple innings, where you could still feel that the fingers were sticking together.
“So it was far more than we had ever seen before on a pitcher in live action.”
Scherzer, who had been sent back to the dugout for the same reason before the start of the third inning — warning No. 1 — was finished for the afternoon having barely broken a sweat in three scoreless innings. Scherzer faces a 10-game suspension over the incident, though he will appeal any decision.
Following the Mets’ 5-3 win in the series finale with the Dodgers, he said that if MLB tried to suspend him, it would become “a legal matter.”
Scherzer said the standard, league-issued rosin had mixed with his own sweat and become “clumpy,” and the umpires asked him to wash it off. He did so with alcohol, he said, following protocol in front of an MLB official. That eliminated the clumpy texture, he said, but still left his hand sticky. He also had been asked to change gloves before the third inning when the umpires said the tacky substance was there as well.
So when he came out for the fourth inning, Scherzer said, he knew he was going to get checked again and “I’d have to be an absolute idiot to try to do anything.” He added: “I don’t know how I get ejected when I’m in front of MLB officials doing exactly what you want. And being deemed my hand’s too sticky when I’m using a legal substance. I do not understand that.”
He said he told the umpires, “I swear on my kids’ lives I’m not using anything else” aside from rosin and sweat. Later, he said he swore on his own life.
After the game, Scherzer’s agent, Scott Boras, issued a statement arguing that MLB must have objective, and not subjective, standards for enforcing its rules, reading in part: “If you want to attack the integrity of the competition you need clear precise standards else you damage the game and its players.”
Bellino and Cuzzi, speaking to the pool reporter, said they wanted to give him every chance to comply.
“The fact that this went so much further was indicative that there was something likely more than just rosin, something that was so sticky, that whatever it was, it was all over the palm, it was up on the inside of the fingers, then the entire hand was stickier than anything that we had inspected before,” Bellino said. “And most importantly, it was worse than it was in that second inning when he was told that he had to wash his hand.”
It was an astounding twist in what has been a pretty good trip and a solid start to the Mets’ season despite Showalter, pitching coach Jeremy Hefner and general manager Billy Eppler having to patch holes in the pitching staff at an increasingly furious pace.
In addition to Verlander and Carrasco being out, left-hander José Quintana (stress fracture in his rib) is shelved through midsummer.
Part of this is simply the wear and tear of the season, even if it is only mid-April. As Showalter said, “pitching is not a normal thing to do to your body.”
But more than most, Scherzer, 38, and Verlander, 40, through their combined 447 victories, have thrown hundreds of innings and thousands of high-leverage pitches. The Mets knew this when they signed Scherzer to a three-year, $130 million deal before the 2022 season, and they knew it when they signed Verlander to a two-year, $86.7 million deal last offseason.
“It’s a volatile position,” outfielder Tommy Pham said. “It’s why they get quarterback money.
Center fielder Brandon Nimmo, who had five hits Wednesday and has turned in several defensive gems on this trip, said that while it will be nice to have Scherzer and Verlander together in the rotation soon, the team is not obsessing about things now.
“Part of the game for us. That was partly the way Billy and Steve built the team,” Nimmo said, referring to Eppler and the club’s owner, Steven Cohen. “We have some depth. We have the next guy up step in to fill in.”
For Scherzer, on Wednesday, that was reliever Jimmy Yacabonis and it happened much more quickly than anticipated. The Mets love everything about the days Scherzer pitches: Playing behind him, his energy, the way he powers through every moment with the force of a tropical storm from the moment he arrives at the ballpark.
When he shows up, Nimmo said, Scherzer is out of his street clothes and into his uniform in the blink of an eye. It is something Nimmo teases him about — at least, when Scherzer’s adrenaline is back down and his hunting instinct has turned off for the evening.
“He comes in and is off and on with his clothes while I’m still getting my first button unbuttoned,” Nimmo said before Wednesday’s game, chuckling. “He works fast. He does everything fast. He’s a joy to be around.”
Showalter, who had written rookie catcher Francisco Álvarez into Wednesday’s lineup, mentioned this in a similar vein.
“Max is one of those rare veteran starters that, like, if there’s a young catcher who needs to catch, he wants him,” Showalter said. “He enjoys bringing those guys along and kind of helping them and showing them.”
Scherzer threw 47 pitches, 32 for strikes. Not the full day’s work that a team relies on from an ace.
But as they have most of the way, the Mets figured out a workaround. Facing Noah Syndergaard as he made his first career start against the Mets, the organization in which he cut his major league teeth and developed into a star, Nimmo hammered a two-run homer in the fifth to position the Mets to win.
Already, they had swept the lowly Oakland Athletics over the weekend. Then they won the series opener over the Dodgers to stretch their winning streak to five before running into Kershaw, who channeled his prime on an emotional night over seven brilliant shutout innings. From the start, it was evident that he was not going to let anything ruin his chance to win No. 200 at home for the only organization he has known.
“As an opposing player, you can look back on some nights and it’s like, ‘Man, I wish I could have’ ” done this or that, first baseman Pete Alonso said. “But he had his A-plus stuff working. Tip your hat. He was excellent.”
Like Scherzer, Kershaw, 35, battles periodic back issues and must work hard during the season to manage them. Like Scherzer, he is a proud warrior and potential season-changer for a contending team facing a long summer fraught with potential pitfalls and uncertainties.
But only the Mets, who now travel to San Francisco for the final four games of their West Coast trip, have the potential to run out two of the only four active 200-game winners in what could be an electric and historic rotation. Now they just need to get — and keep — them on the field.
“Having that type of talent and that quality of pitcher is going to be huge for us,” Alonso said. “I’m excited.”