NEW YORK — Max Scherzer has given up the ball and walked from the pitcher’s mound to the dugout 445 times in his career. Twelve times, he has walked off the mound without giving up the ball at all. He has ambled off the field to standing ovations after no-hitters and 20-strikeout showings. He has been cheered politely after so many 10-strikeout games that he made them seem routine.
But never, in 456 starts in his Hall of Fame career before Friday, in eight postseasons, has Scherzer made that walk harried by boos from a crowd of 40,000-plus like he did in the fifth inning of the New York Mets’ 7-1 loss in Game 1 of their first-round series against the San Diego Padres at Citi Field on Friday night.
Because never, in 26 postseason outings and countless crucial regular season efforts, has a team rendered Scherzer as unintimidating as the Padres did, with four homers and seven earned runs in 4⅔ innings against him.
And never had a manager hurried to the mound more decisively than Buck Showalter did when the fourth homer flew off the bat of Manny Machado and into the left field seats, leaving Scherzer to tug on the brim of his hat and turn awkwardly back to the pitching rubber, his face emotionless, as if he didn’t recognize the feeling.
“Of course I’m disappointed, but I don’t know what else …” Scherzer said, shoulders hunched, eyes straight ahead, unblinking, stunned. “Baseball can take you to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. And this is one of the lowest of lows.”
If Scherzer was stunned, Showalter was careful to dispute the idea that anyone should be surprised.
“That’s your word, stunning. It’s not,” said Showalter, who is dutiful and dogged in deflecting the harshest attention from his players. “We know how hard it is to do what Max does.”
But for Scherzer, who has allowed four homers in a game just three times in his career, who has allowed seven earned runs just a dozen times, and who has not come close to doing either in a game this important, Friday night’s showing qualified as unprecedented.
That showing, combined with the Mets’ complete inability to solve Yu Darvish, pushed the Mets to the brink of elimination. His struggles also pushed the Mets’ decision-making into a spotlight everyone around the organization probably hoped they could avoid.
Jacob deGrom, perhaps the most dominant pitcher of his era when healthy, is also on their roster. Instead of pitching him in Game 1 of this series, on full rest, his schedule set with plenty of notice, they opted to hold deGrom in what appears in hindsight like an unnecessary limbo: If they won Game 1, the Mets would throw Chris Bassitt in Game 2, hoping to avoid using deGrom until a division series opener. If they didn’t, they would put their season on deGrom’s fragile shoulders with relatively short notice.
DeGrom, who finished the season with four subpar starts and left the last of them with a blister, said he was able to throw his normal side sessions on schedule — that the whole thing “worked out.” Plus, if there was any silver lining to Scherzer’s struggles, it was that they let deGrom know early Friday that he would be needed in Game 2.
“The main preparation is going to be tomorrow when I get here. Going over scouting reports,” deGrom said. “Throughout that game, you’re watching that game and seeing what they’re hitting and what they’re not, picking up little things here and there, whether it was tomorrow or Sunday that I was going to throw.”
Perhaps deGrom will dominate and the Mets will win the series, the point moot in hindsight. But even if that happens, even if it all works out, the Mets will wonder exactly what went wrong with Scherzer. Because even Scherzer, keenly aware of his body and his mechanics, could not guarantee he could fix it.
Scherzer knew what went wrong Friday night. He knew the fastball he threw to his former Washington Nationals teammate Josh Bell leaked up and out to the lefty instead of staying up and in, allowing Bell to hit a two-run homer in his first postseason at-bat.
He knew the fastball he threw to struggling Trent Grisham an inning later was flat and ran out over the plate, right where Grisham — who hit .107 in September — could hit it. He knew the fastballs he threw to Jurickson Profar and Manny Machado in the fifth ended up in the seats because they didn’t end up where he wanted them.
“I felt like my fastball was running on me,” Scherzer said. He explained that fastballs to his glove side — the side, importantly, on which he strained an oblique that forced him to the injured list twice this season — were running instead of riding. Fastballs he tried to throw into lefties, like that pitch to Bell, leaked out over the plate.
He said he didn’t think his oblique was the problem, but wouldn’t say for sure. He said he watched the film and watched his trademark riding fastball traveling flat, even sinking now and then.
“Don’t know why that is," he said, in another nearly unprecedented moment of his long career. When it comes to his body, his mechanics, and his stuff, Scherzer always has answers.
“I’m like you, you see that, you go 'what if there’s something going on there?’ But if you’ve been around Max as much as we have, you know he doesn’t chase anything other than the mirror,” said Showalter, who meant that Scherzer looks at himself, rather than hunting for excuses, at times like these. "We’ll look at it though. Obviously when you see a break from what your expectations are, you do look at things like that.”
Scherzer said Friday would be a late night for him. He seemed to think he could figure this out, make the kind of adjustment he has made so many times before in a career defined by his ability to stave off long stretches of inefficacy. But he admitted he thought he had made the right adjustment after allowing three home runs in his final start of the regular season. This, whatever this is, is something even Scherzer has never seen before.