CINCINNATI — Nearly seven weeks removed from his most recent major-league game, having endured a grueling rehabilitation of the most serious in-season injury of his career, Max Scherzer returned Tuesday night looking about the same as ever: utterly excellent.
He tossed six shutout innings, struck out 11 and threw only 79 pitches against the Reds in a game the Mets lost, 1-0. Seth Lugo allowed a walk-off sacrifice fly to Mike Moustakas, the only batter he retired out of the four he faced in the bottom of the ninth.
More important than the final score, though, was Scherzer’s dominance — and mere presence, for that matter — and what it means for the Mets (50-31) moving forward. They have one of their aces healthy again, with the other, Jacob deGrom, expected back by the end of the month, positioning them as well as they could hope for the playoff chase.
In his return, Scherzer allowed two hits, walked none and retired 14 of his final 15 batters.
“Other than the loss . . . there were a lot of good things from a Max standpoint,” manager Buck Showalter said. “It’s been a long haul for him and all the people working with him. Hopefully it bodes well for what we hope is the rest of the season.”
Said Scherzer, regarding his formerly strained left oblique: “I felt good. No issues whatsoever today, felt strong all the way through. It never tightened up on me, so that’s a good thing.”
The tangible assurances that he had moved past the injury began in the first inning, when he retired the top of the Cincinnati lineup in order on nine pitches.
The only modicum of trouble he encountered came during a 22-pitch second, when Donovan Solano singled and Scherzer hit Moustakas to put two runners on with one out. Nick Senzel’s flyout to right moved Solano to third.
Then Scherzer ramped up his fastball to 97.1 mph — his fastest pitch of the year — for a called third strike on Matt Reynolds.
“I didn’t try to throw it as hard as I could, but I knew I needed a firm fastball in that situation,” explained Scherzer, who credited his success in part to a slider that was far sharper than in his recent minor-league outings. “As I get farther along, deeper into this, get away from this injury, that’ll allow me to be even more aggressive with a fastball and be able to step on it even more. Today, just felt like that was a situation where I threw a good fastball, but I didn’t reach back and really grunt. Maybe the grunts will come here in a couple more weeks.”
Scherzer emphatically wanted to pitch the seventh, but Showalter and pitching coach Jeremy Hefner removed him despite the reasonable pitch count. He hadn’t taken the mound for a sixth inning — never mind more — since mid-May. His rehab start with Double-A Binghamton last week was 80 pitches across 4 2/3.
“This is a good problem to have,” he said. “Buck is going o make the best decision for the ballclub and for my health and my long-term health. I completely understand where he’s coming from.”
Showalter added: “I know he wasn’t happy with me, but that’s all right.”
Altogether, the outing was a promising first sign that Scherzer indeed will be a boon to a Mets rotation that missed him.
From Opening Day through May 18, when he got hurt, the starters had a 3.23 ERA (in 39 games). That was second best in the National League (behind the Dodgers) and fourth best in the majors.
From May 19 through Monday, the starters had a 4.92 ERA (in 41 games). That was in the bottom third of the majors, between the rebuilding/generally aimless Orioles and Pirates.
That difference was not due solely to Scherzer’s absence, especially with the likes of fill-in David Peterson pitching well. But re-adding one of the best pitchers of his generation to the rotation should benefit all involved — especially when his impact extends beyond the field.
“It’s nice having his persona back,” Showalter said. “Sometimes that persona plays better when you’re contributing. So I think that’s what he’s looking forward to.”
Rookie lefthander Nick Lodolo, also returning from injury (back strain), tossed 4 2/3 innings to begin the shutout for the Reds (28-52). Four relievers finished it. That lowered Cincinnati’s worst-in-the-majors ERA to 5.45.
“Sometimes you got to tip your cap to the opponent,” James McCann said. “But when our guy does what he did tonight, it definitely makes it more frustrating to have to tip your cap.”