Jacob deGrom talks with manager Buck Showalter before the game in...

Jacob deGrom talks with manager Buck Showalter before the game in Atlanta on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. Credit: John Bazemore

Buck Showalter told the world a number of things Thursday after the Mets finished their workout at Citi Field.

The manager mentioned how his dogs fall asleep to music played by his wife’s instructions to Alexa. He brought up another favorite bit by the comedian George Carlin (two days running now). Showalter also said the Mets had a spelling bee on the team plane (this was not verified).

What Showalter did not publicly reveal -- despite numerous attempts by the assembled media -- is who is scheduled to start for the Mets in Saturday’s Game 2 of the Wild Card Series. Max Scherzer has Friday’s opener, and is a nearly unimpeachable choice as a three-time Cy Young winner with 21 playoff starts on his resume. The only caveats being his advanced age (38) and this season’s oblique issues.

But, rather than go the obvious route and automatically follow Scherzer with Jacob deGrom, a two-time Cy Young winner himself, Showalter is veering off script for this best-of-three series and choosing to see what happens Friday before committing to a Game 2 starter. Showalter alluded to a couple of factors for this, but the primary motivation seems to be perhaps saving deGrom for a potential Division Series matchup with the Dodgers.

The temptation would be hard to resist. Should the Mets win Game 1, they can pivot to Chris Bassitt for the clincher, and if that gambit is successful, Showalter could then deploy deGrom for Games 1 and 5 of the Division Series. On the flip side, a Friday loss would force Showalter to use deGrom for Saturday’s do-or-die Game 2, or if they face elimination Sunday.

Still, it’s a calculated risk. How could the Mets leave deGrom holstered with a chance to close out the Padres as promptly as possible? Especially after witnessing Bassitt’s unsettling performance last Sunday at Truist Park, where he couldn’t find the plate and had to be pulled after 2 2/3 innings in his most important start in a Mets uniform?

Matchup-wise, deGrom’s season didn’t start until Aug. 2, so he didn’t face the Padres this season, which has to be considered a competitive advantage for him. Bassitt made two starts against the Padres, including one on June 8 at PETCO Park that was among his worst of the year (7 earned runs, 3 1/3 innings). He pitched much better six weeks later at Citi, allowing two runs and striking out 11 over seven innings, but still took the L in a 2-1 loss (Manny Machado’s two-run homer off him in the sixth was the difference). All of this was before Juan Soto and Josh Bell joined the Padres at the trade deadline.

 

Showalter repeatedly insisted Thursday that Game 1 was the Mets’ priority as they prepared for the Wild Card Series. But when asked if this first-time playoff format, and tight turnaround to the Division Series against the top-seeded Dodgers, played a role in him possibly rolling the dice with the rotation, the manager had to acknowledge as much.

“The focus is completely on [Friday] night’s game,” Showalter said. “But when you’re doing rosters and stuff, without jeopardizing putting your best foot forward in these three games, you do have to at least consider that. Everybody does. The tiebreaker will always be what’s best for these three games. We have people capable of pitching all through our rotation. The only reason we’ve been able to put together a pretty good year is that we’ve had some depth in our rotation.”

That confidence, however, took a major hit last weekend in Atlanta. The Mets lined up deGrom, Scherzer and Bassitt to claim the NL East crown during that trip to Truist Park only to have the defending world champs beat all three in a sweep that basically secured their fifth straight division title. It was a stunning turn of events for the Mets, and that trio’s failure is the reason why they’re hosting the Padres in this Wild Card Series.

Showalter said Thursday that the three starters involved were briefed about this plan more than a week ago, but deGrom and Bassitt aren’t likely to know for sure when they’ll actually slot in until the late innings Friday night, at the earliest. Since starting pitchers are notorious creatures of habit, wedded to their routines, leaving both of them in limbo about Game 2 could have a negative impact, although Showalter dismissed that idea.

“It’s like if you get rained out, would you be able to pitch the next day?” Showalter said. “They’re faced with similar stuff. They know the order, how it may fluctuate. It’s kind of been a strength of our club is that guys don’t let their ego get in the way of it. Tell me when I can contribute and I will.”

Showalter apparently isn’t ready to do that for anyone besides Scherzer until after Friday night’s Game 1. And, even if the Mets wind up victorious, the manager’s macro strategy has the potential to blow up in his face if anyone but deGrom sabotages them in Game 2. Momentum is always a fragile thing come playoff time, and for a short best-of-three series, all it takes is one miscalculation to end a team’s October.

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