How troubling were Justin Verlander’s injury and Max Scherzer’s sixth inning for the Mets?
MIAMI -- Garrett Cooper had just fouled off the heater. He was on it.
Now Max Scherzer and catcher Omar Narvaez had a choice to make — fastball or off-speed on the 0-1 pitch. They went fastball.
It was middle-middle and Cooper was ready. He drove the ball over the center-field wall, and Scherzer went from dominating the Marlins on Opening Day to blowing a 3-0 lead. He gathered himself to strike out Jazz Chisholm Jr. then left with the game tied.
It worked out fine in the end. The Mets came back to win, 5-3. But it’s worth examining what seemed like two ominous developments at the top of their starting rotation, an area that is vital to the team’s hope to contend for a championship: Scherzer threw a few ill-timed meatballs in the sixth, and Justin Verlander hit the injured list with a low-grade strain of his teres major -- the armpit area, which is close to the shoulder.
Before all this, I asked a scout who watched the Mets every day in the final week of spring training a purposefully general question: how did the team look on its way out of camp?
The scout’s mind immediately went to the team’s two aces, which tells you something about their importance.
“Usually you see those top guys really dialing it in during their last starts of the spring,” he said. “But Max looked out of whack because he was messing around with how to use the pitch clock, and Verlander had no command of his fastball and breaking ball.”
Simply put, if Scherzer and Verlander pitch like the Hall-of-Famers-in-waiting that they are, the Mets will be World Series contenders. If they are injured, ineffective, or otherwise show their age, the Mets will struggle.
Verlander said he was relieved the injury was not in his lat, and strongly downplayed its severity by noting that he would continue to play catch. Other Mets officials agreed, and the players believed them; this was not a mournful clubhouse.
The surprise injury carried an extra element of psychological trauma in Metsland, because the team and its fans are finally free of Jacob deGrom and his maddening unavailability. Verlander was supposed to be more reliable. Perhaps he will be, but this was an unexpected bummer at the beginning of his Mets career.
One consolation: at least when the Phillies ruined deGrom’s Texas Rangers debut by shellacking him for five runs in 3 ⅔ innings, it wasn’t the Mets' problem. It’s a relief to be out from under the weight of deGrom’s ups and downs. And for all of deGrom’s talk about being a future Hall of Famer, Verlander actually is one.
As for Scherzer, neither he nor Buck Showalter nor pitching coach Jeremy Hefner accepted the premise that he was tired in the sixth inning on Thursday. It seemed to me that a pair of long-ish at-bats in the fourth -- a seven-pitch walk to Jean Segura and a double-play by Cooper that took nine pitches -- sanded some of the edges of his stuff. But what do I know?
The issue in the sixth, the Mets said, was not strength or energy but pitch selection. After Cooper nearly timed Scherzer’s first-pitch fastball, he probably should have gone with the slider for a change of speed, before returning to the heater.
Instead, he went back to that fastball. At 93 miles per hour, Scherzer can’t afford to miss over the middle of the plate, as he did to Cooper. All three Miami extra-base hits in the sixth came off Scherzer fastballs.
All night, Scherzer’s slider had left the Marlins looking foolish. He doesn’t have the velocity of a Verlander or deGrom or Gerrit Cole, but he still spins his breaking ball as well as nearly anyone.
Had he done that to Cooper, he would have given the Mets six dominant innings on Thursday, as Cole did for the Yankees. Then we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.
But as it happened, one Mets ace was great for five innings on Opening Day, and the other hit the injured list. It’s going to take more than that to win a World Series.