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 way to a victory. It lined up precisely with the Mets’ vision for their summer, except for 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 game, 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 did not 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 as 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 within 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 final 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 in 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 able to do, what Trevor Williams has been able to do — they have 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 is and not even lower.”
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“Relax, all right? Don’t try 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 will also meet the Cincinnati Reds, the Miami Marlins, the Braves and the Chicago Cubs before the All-Star break. Scherzer lines up to start 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 started for the Mets on Wednesday — used all of his pitches across four and two-thirds innings, striking out eight with one walk and reaching 97 miles per hour with his fastball. The Yard Goats got four hits and had three stolen bases off Scherzer and catcher Francisco Álvarez, the Mets’ top prospect, who cleared the left field bleachers with his 18th home run.
The Rumble Ponies won, 7-3, and Scherzer bought the postgame spread, in keeping with the baseball custom for big leaguers passing through the farm.
“They’re eating well tonight,” Scherzer said.
Scherzer had gone through his pregame routine in the outfield below a scoreboard topped by a giant Dunkin’ coffee cup. He practiced his delivery without a ball or glove, stretched from side to side, jangled his legs, jogged along the warning track and sprinted 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 another alternate jersey by a few days; last Saturday, the team took the field as 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. In most cases, he came right back with the same pitch and put it where he wanted. He wanted to stay in for another batter or two — “My arm feels great,” he said — but knew he had reached his pitch limit.
“We all know he’s the most intense guy out there,” said the Binghamton pitching coach Jerome Williams, who spent 11 seasons in the majors and overlapped for several with Scherzer.
“His last outing, he was straight locked-in, pacing back and forth, doing the normal Max Scherzer stuff. It might have only been four innings, but he was focused for those four innings. He prepares right; he knows a routine and knows what he needs to do to go out there and perform. And that’s the one thing that I like my pitchers to see, that this is what it takes. Look at how long he’s been doing it.”
Before these two starts for Binghamton, Scherzer, who turns 38 in July, had not pitched in the minors since 2010, with the Toledo Mud Hens. In the meantime, he has earned three Cy Young Awards, nearly 200 victories and, by the end of his Mets contract, about $350 million.
The Mets gave Scherzer the highest annual salary in major league history — $43.3 million a year — 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., lots of strikeouts and not many base runners. He is ready to return to that standard.
“Now it’s more just focused on pitching, so I really feel confident, going through this turn now, of how I will prepare for my next start,” Scherzer said. “It won’t be as much rehab in the process, so I really don’t think that’s going to overload the oblique on this turn. That will 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 reaction in his right scapula. He will soon cross the one-year mark since his last major league appearance but threw 27 pitches in live batting practice this week and could soon be ready for his own rehab assignment.
Because of the layoff — and the sense that he simply threw too hard last season for his reedy frame to withstand — it seems unrealistic, at least 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 in the land of the Yard Goats, but it was a one-night-only gig.
“Cool little park, good to check another city off my list,” Scherzer said. “Hopefully that’s it.”