Max Scherzer is 13-6 with a 2.46 ERA since joining the...

Max Scherzer is 13-6 with a 2.46 ERA since joining the Mets before the 2022 season. Credit: Jim McIsaac

SAN FRANCISCO — Max Scherzer sat on his hands and swiveled on an office chair, relegated to observing from a distance as his team toiled below. He preferred to be in the dugout or the bullpen or the clubhouse, but he wasn’t allowed in any of those places, at least not while the Mets were playing.

So instead Scherzer, their star pitcher, watched from an upper deck at Oracle Park, in an otherwise unoccupied booth on the broadcast level, narrating what he saw. He wanted in so badly. He knew exactly how the evening — a game in which he was not pitching — would look.

“I’m a wanderer,” said Scherzer, whose usual non-start day regimen includes consuming an immense amount of caffeine shortly before first pitch. “I don’t have ADD. I have CSS: Can’t sit still. I’m always bouncing around, talking to everybody. I’d probably be getting a download from Vogie right now. He’s on the bench, he’s telling me everything that’s going through his mind.”

Daniel Vogelbach, designated hitter, was hanging out on the top step of the dugout. At the moment Scherzer noticed him, Pete Alonso went over to chat. They were talking ball and talking junk, or may as well have been. Those are two of Scherzer’s favorite kinds of talking.

“No, I just miss . . . ” he said, trailing off. “I’m just frustrated about this whole process.”

Mets starting pitcher Max Scherzer and manager Buck Showalter dispute a call from umpire Phil Cuzzi in Los Angeles last Wednesday. Credit: AP / Ashley Landis

This whole process is the one that has him suspended 10 games by MLB for violating its foreign-substance policy, putting him in the middle of the sport’s newest sticky-stuff controversy — a contrived controversy, in his view. In his outing against the Dodgers last week, umpires determined his hands were too sticky, illegally sticky, and ejected him from the game. Scherzer insisted it was only rosin and sweat. The automatic ban came a day later. He is eligible to return Monday.

Per the terms of his punishment, Scherzer also is banned from Mets-specific areas of the ballpark once play begins. Over the weekend, after completing a normal afternoon workout, he agreed to watch a game with Newsday.

Weaving between what happened on the field and anything else that came to mind, his commentary during a 5-4 loss to the Giants on Sunday offered a window into a painful baseball truth, a lesson the Mets learned on a larger scale last season: The difference between winning and losing can be agonizingly small.

These are nine innings with Max Scherzer.

The early innings

Scherzer had not been to a major-league game as a fan since 2007 when he was a Diamondbacks prospect who once watched the playoffs in person in Phoenix.

A decade and a half later, the view from high behind home plate at this ballpark inspired awe.

“OK, now this is a pretty stadium,” he said of Oracle Park, widely considered among the best in the majors. “They always say San Francisco is beautiful. From the dugout, you never really get it. Same thing in Pittsburgh. But I get it from the fans’ perspective. You can see the bay, the mountains in the background. It’s way cooler up here.” 

From the start, Scherzer’s chatter was deep. He acted almost like an analyst on a broadcast but even more thorough — discussing the finer points of how to sequence pitches against certain batters, wondering about the positioning of defenders on specific plays, thinking ahead on manager Buck Showalter’s bullpen moves, agreeing with (or not) the approaches from starters Tylor Megill and Ross Stripling. They were the individuals with which he best related.

 Scherzer wasn’t so much second-guessing or even first-guessing as much as he was just thinking along with the players, parsing the many variables and mulling their many choices.

The Mets’ first batter, Brandon Nimmo, popped out to rookie catcher Blake Sabol. After Sabol homered off Kodai Senga earlier in the series, Scherzer told Senga: Don’t forget it.

“You’ll remember that,” Scherzer said. “You’ll remember that sequence of blowing fastballs and thinking you can blow another one by him. You’ll know not to do that again. Only if you remember his name.”

Scherzer’s version was Cameron Rupp, a catcher for the Phillies last decade. Rupp tagged him for a homer on April 16, 2016 . . . and then never again.

“I blew a 2-and-0 fastball by him, a 2-and-1 fastball by him. A 2-and-2 fastball, I tried to rear back and throw as hard as I could,” he recalled. “Oh, I got you, bud. Wham. Homer. Yup, it’s the major leagues.”

In the same way he lightly advised Senga, Scherzer often converses with Megill. He likes that part of his job, teaching younger pitchers, but has had to learn how to do so in smaller doses.

Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner and virtual lock for the Hall of Fame, has a capacity for pitching strategy that most others don’t. Some of these newer guys are just trying to figure it out.

“You gotta give them one thing, be good at one thing,” he said. “Don’t try to give them three. Be good at one, then we can talk about two.”

So, about that Megill 3-and-2 fastball on the outer edge to Joc Pederson, which became a first-inning RBI single? It would’ve been better to walk him, but the real miss was the pitch before, a slider way outside to end up in a full count, Scherzer said.

Megill’s down-and-in changeup to Sabol in the third? The perfect choice to get a called third strike after Sabol whiffed at an up-and-away fastball.

“Yup, there it is,” Scherzer said. He laughed, having nailed the prediction. “The game is telling you what to do.”

Alonso’s at-bat in the third ended in a routine flyout, but the first pitch caught Scherzer’s attention. Stripling snuck in a high fastball for a called strike. It was a nothing moment that could have changed everything.

“That’s a dangerous pitch, 92 [mph] is not enough to do that to Pete,” he said. “In that situation, that’s a high-risk pitch. That could be a two-run shot. That’s how you lose a ballgame.”

The middle innings

Jeff McNeil opened the Mets’ two-run rally in the fourth with a normal-looking grounder to second base. It became a single because, Scherzer said, “his swing gives him that extra step.” He starts running as he makes contact.

“God, he’s so good,” Scherzer said.

Jeff McNeil after scoring against the San Francisco Giants on Mark Canha's sacrifice fly during the fourth inning on Sunday. Credit: AP / Godofredo A. Vásquez

Francisco Alvarez, standing little chance against a steady diet of off-speed pitches, made the first out of the inning. Despite his struggles, he has impressed Scherzer - the pitcher old enough to be his father - with an eagerness to work and learn. In that sense, Alvarez reminded Scherzer of Juan Soto. 

“That just means he’s got a good head on his shoulders,” he said. “You can’t make a senior out of a freshman.”

After the Mets scored a pair the attention turned back to Megill.

He needed a shutdown inning in the bottom of the fourth. The Mets had just taken the lead. The bottom half of the San Francisco batting order was due up. The setting sun created awkward shadows, which played in the pitchers’ favor.

Scherzer’s idea: Throw a ton of breaking balls. They would be even harder for hitters to read as they went from the light of the mound to the darkness near the plate.

“This is how starters win ballgames,” Scherzer said. “Now you have to be sharp here. This is a critical time. I don’t want to say this has to be, but this is lining up for the goose egg.”

Megill tried with the curveballs and sliders, maybe not as many as Scherzer would have used, but didn’t really know where they were going. Three singles and a couple of ground balls — producing two runs — began with a hanging curve to Mike Yastrzemski for the first hit.

A curve in the dirt would’ve been fine. He probably would not have swung through it because of the lighting. Up, it was hittable. Megill later called that half-inning the most frustrating part of his outing.

“That at-bat screwed everything up,” Scherzer said.

Megill said that night: "It’s probably a big pet peeve for pitchers. You’re going out there, you’re trying to get outs, the offense is grinding . . . they get runs and your biggest thing is when they score runs is to get back out there and get that shutdown inning. And you don’t put up a zero."

That was it for Megill, who threw 81 pitches. No Mets starter has reached 100 this year. Scherzer was positioned to do so a couple of times, but his sore back didn’t help. That was what caused the Mets to delay his most recent start by three days, setting him up for an afternoon of arguing with Phil Cuzzi -- and this night in this booth. .

The back is fine but needs to be managed.

“It’s a strength issue,” Scherzer said. “It’s a difficult spot to train. It’s not a dumbbell row. It’s not a lat pulldown. It’s very unique and specific ways you gotta strengthen it. We’ve had to revamp how to get it. That’s where during this suspension, OK, we need to strengthen the back. That’s the benefit.”

Max Scherzer during a spring training workout in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

Maybe the most fired up Scherzer got all game was when Mark Canha’s grounder to San Francisco reliever Tyler Rogers spun away for a single. It was the second time a pitcher failed to convert a ground ball into an out, following Stripling’s inability to pick up a slow roller for a should-be out.

Scherzer boiled. Pitchers’ fielding practice is a point of passion for him. He completes one earnest such set of drills each March, on an afternoon when he knows his arm is tired, the best conditions to simulate a game. He does it at 100% intensity because otherwise there is no point; it won’t carry over to when he needs to do it for real.

“I talk so much [expletive],” Scherzer said, cackling and adding, basically shouting: “In spring training, I did my work.”

He said earlier regarding Stripling’s flub: “You cannot, you cannot, cannot — that’s a routine [play]. Cannot. It would be so hard for me to go back in the dugout.”

How much pride does he take in his fielding?

“I’m actually really bad,” he said, maniacally laughing again. “I’m a terrible infielder. I’m more likely to catch a pop fly. All the ground ball stuff, I don’t have good hands, per se. But if I get to it, get hands on the ball, catch it, I should be able to make the throw. I gotta be able to make the throw.”

The late innings

During a pause in play, the scoreboard showed an ad: The Giants are going to Mexico to play the Padres this weekend.

That is the sort of destination series the Mets haven’t played in years. Scherzer’s suggestion: Bring a bunch of teams to Europe for two weeks. Do what MLB did in setting up London Stadium for Yankees-Red Sox in 2019, but in several cities across the continent. More hoopla, more fun, more growing the game.

“Eurotrip,” Scherzer said. “Take the whole NL East.” 

The Mets nearly fell behind in the seventh, but Brooks Raley worked around LaMonte Wade Jr.’s double. He squared up the sixth slider he saw out of seven pitches. Pitchers say frequently that if they get beat, they want to get beat on their best pitch, not their third. Scherzer challenged that conventional wisdom.

“Your changeup is your worst pitch, but is it worse than a sixth slider?” he asked.

Scherzer lamented how the fourth inning had unfolded just before the Giants jumped ahead for good in the bottom of the eighth. Showalter left David Robertson and Adam Ottavino in the bullpen, he said partially with an eye on keeping them healthy all season.

“Drew [Smith] for the heart of the order,” Scherzer noted.

The game-winning moment was Yastrzemski’s double, which scored Pederson, who had walked. Scherzer yelped at the crack of the bat.

“Ah, changeup. Arrrrgh,” he said. The relay throw made its way home. “Oh, we got a chaaaaan — .”

Pederson beat the throw easily, 5-4 San Francisco.

In analyst mode, Scherzer wondered — not critically, not angrily, but genuinely — what Yastrzemski’s spray chart looked like. He noticed Nimmo, in center, had been shaded a couple of steps toward leftfield. He figured Yastrzemski, especially ahead 2-and-1, would be looking to pull the ball to right.

Indeed, most of his extra-base hits have gone to that part of the field. The game-winning double went to right-center.

To Scherzer, whose interest in outfielders’ positioning is significant enough that he offers direct input on the matter prior to his starts, a couple of steps can make all the difference.  

“You’re not saying you’re going to catch it, but you can cut it off,” he said. Maybe Pederson, a below-average runner, would get thrown out at home or stop at third. “That would be one of my first homework checks here, looking back on this game. The fact that you gave up an extra-base hit — was there any way to prevent that from happening?”

That’s the difference between winning and losing.

After the Mets did nothing in the top of the ninth, Scherzer was in a hurry to get back to the clubhouse, where he was allowed to be physically present again. This was the only game he watched from this vantage point; for upcoming Citi Field contests, he plans to leave the stadium before games start. His wife, Erica, is arriving this week with their four kids and four dogs. Their new Long Island home will be busy this summer.

The Mets finished a successful road trip by losing a winnable game. Fresh off a 101-win season in which they lost the NL East on a tiebreaker, they never know at this point what might make a difference at the end. But Scherzer tried not to think that way.

“Good road trip. Just take that. This game is too hard. Find the positives,” he said. “It didn’t work for us. That’s why we lost by one.” 

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