HARTFORD, Conn. — An ace right-hander with 3,000 strikeouts and a Hall of Fame résumé took the mound at Citi Field on Wednesday afternoon. He fired eight shutout innings against a first-place team on his option to a victory. It lined up precisely with the Mets’ vision for his or her summer, apart from one big detail.
The pitcher was Justin Verlander of the Houston Astros, not Max Scherzer of the Binghamton Rumble Ponies. Scherzer kept track of the sport, a 2-0 Mets loss, from afar.
“I saw bits and pieces of it, not entirely,” Scherzer said on Wednesday night, outside the visiting clubhouse at Dunkin’ Donuts Park, where he threw 80 pitches in a rehab start against the Class AA Hartford Yard Goats. “But I’m aware of what happened the past couple of days.”
What happened was two home losses to the Astros, matching the Mets’ two losses in Houston last week. Scherzer didn’t pitch for the Mets all month as he recovered from an oblique injury sustained on May 18. The Mets went 13-12 in June, still atop the National League East but wobbling because the Atlanta Braves close in fast.
When June began, the Braves were 10½ games behind the Mets. Before Thursday’s game in Philadelphia, they were 21-5 in June, tying an Atlanta-era franchise record for wins in a month and drawing inside three games of the lead.
The Mets’ offense — not their pitching — has sputtered in Scherzer’s absence. The team hit just .232 in June, with a .301 on-base percentage and a .369 slugging percentage. Only two N.L. teams arrived at the ultimate day of the month with a worse June O.P.S. than the Mets’ .670: the also-ran Pittsburgh Pirates and Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Mets had a 4.32 earned run average within the month, just .01 higher than their mark in May. Taijuan Walker worked seven and one-third scoreless innings on Wednesday and has pitched like an All-Star since Scherzer went down. The fill-ins have been solid.
“What David Peterson’s been capable of do, what Trevor Williams has been capable of do — they’ve really held down the fort,” Scherzer said. “They’ve really pitched well and given the ball club some quality starts and quality innings. That’s why the lead is what it’s and never even lower.”
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“Chill out, all right? Don’t attempt to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls, it’s more democratic.”
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The Mets play 14 of their next 17 games against teams with losing records, starting with three at home this weekend against the Texas Rangers. They can even meet the Cincinnati Reds, the Miami Marlins, the Braves and the Chicago Cubs before the All-Star break. Scherzer lines up to start out three of those games after declaring his rehab stint over on Wednesday.
“I’m good to go,” he said.
Scherzer — who said he could have began for the Mets on Wednesday — used all of his pitches across 4 and two-thirds innings, striking out eight with one walk and reaching 97 miles per hour together with his fastball. The Yard Goats got 4 hits and had three stolen bases off Scherzer and catcher Francisco Álvarez, the Mets’ top prospect, who cleared the left field bleachers together with his 18th home run.
The Rumble Ponies won, 7-3, and Scherzer bought the postgame spread, in line with the baseball custom for giant leaguers passing through the farm.
“They’re eating well tonight,” Scherzer said.
Scherzer had passed through his pregame routine within the outfield below a scoreboard topped by a large Dunkin’ coffee cup. He practiced his delivery with out a ball or glove, stretched back and forth, jangled his legs, jogged along the warning track and sprinted just a few times from left-center field to a spot near the left field line.
Scherzer wore the Ponies’ powder blue alternate jersey, “Bing” in script above the Binghamton, N.Y., skyline with hot-air balloons near the shoulders. He missed one other alternate jersey by just a few days; last Saturday, the team took the sector because the Binghamton Stud Muffins.
When he missed his spot with a pitch, Scherzer would grimace and snap his glove for the return throw from Álvarez. Generally, he got here right back with the identical pitch and put it where he wanted. He desired to stay in for an additional batter or two — “My arm feels great,” he said — but knew he had reached his pitch limit.
“Everyone knows he’s probably the most intense guy on the market,” said the Binghamton pitching coach Jerome Williams, who spent 11 seasons within the majors and overlapped for several with Scherzer.
“His last outing, he was straight locked-in, pacing forwards and backwards, doing the traditional Max Scherzer stuff. It may need only been 4 innings, but he was focused for those 4 innings. He prepares right; he knows a routine and knows what he must do to go on the market and perform. And that’s the one thing that I like my pitchers to see, that that is what it takes. Take a look at how long he’s been doing it.”
Before these two starts for Binghamton, Scherzer, who turns 38 in July, had not pitched within the minors since 2010, with the Toledo Mud Hens. Within the meantime, he has earned three Cy Young Awards, nearly 200 victories and, by the tip of his Mets contract, about $350 million.
The Mets gave Scherzer the very best annual salary in major league history — $43.3 million a yr — in his three-year, $130 million deal on Dec. 1. For eight starts, he was just as dominant as usual: 5-1 with a 2.54 E.R.A., numerous strikeouts and never many base runners. He’s able to return to that standard.
“Now it’s more just focused on pitching, so I actually feel confident, going through this turn now, of how I’ll prepare for my next start,” Scherzer said. “It won’t be as much rehab in the method, so I actually don’t think that’s going to overload the oblique on this turn. That can allow me to make my next start in five days.”
Jacob deGrom, the Mets’ other ace, has been shut down all season with a stress response in his right scapula. He’ll soon cross the one-year mark since his last major league appearance but threw 27 pitches in live batting practice this week and will soon be ready for his own rehab task.
Due to layoff — and the sense that he simply threw too hard last season for his reedy frame to resist — it seems unrealistic, a minimum of initially, to expect the Cy Young version of deGrom when he returns.
Scherzer is different. When he’s back, he’s back in full. He got what he wanted within the land of the Yard Goats, however it was a one-night-only gig.
“Cool little park, good to ascertain one other city off my list,” Scherzer said. “Hopefully that’s it.”