Max Scherzer's return to the New York Mets' rotation on Tuesday night was successful, as he struck out a season-high 11 batters in six scoreless innings against the host Reds, leaving after 79 pitches in a game Cincinnati eventually won 1-0 on a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth.
Scherzer had last started for the Mets on May 18, when he left his start in the sixth inning and went on the injured list with an oblique strain. After two minor league rehab starts (and one dog bite that didn't delay his return), Scherzer looked like his usual self in his start at Cincinnati. His fastball to strike out Matt Reynolds in the second inning was clocked at 97.1 mph, matching his fastest pitch of the season -- and it was his fastest pitch on a strikeout since 2020. Overall, he induced 15 swings and misses, or 18.9% of his pitches, topping his season rate of 14% entering the game.
"Felt great," Scherzer said. "No issues whatsoever today. Felt strong all the way through. It never tightened up on me. ... Most importantly, I felt like I had a really good slider tonight. During my rehab starts, my slider wasn't really breaking the right way. In my bullpen, I felt I found something with my slider, and I knew I would need it tonight against this team and was able to execute that."
Scherzer also showed no issues with his control, throwing first-pitch strikes to 17 of the 21 batters he faced and 57 of 79 pitches for strikes overall. He looked much sharper than he did in his Double-A rehab start for Binghamton last week, when Hartford scored three runs off him in 4⅔ innings and had several hard-hit balls. Indeed, this was Scherzer's 28th career game with at least 10 strikeouts and no walks, passing Curt Schilling for the second-most such games in a career and trailing only Randy Johnson, who had 36.
"I was really impressed with his command more than anything after all that time off," said Mets manager Buck Showalter, who said he wanted to limit Scherzer to six innings. "Max is going to be frustrated the team didn't win the game. I know he's missed competing and being part of the team as far as being on the field. I feel good for him.
"He wanted to pitch the seventh, the eighth, the ninth, the 10th. He never wants to come out of a game. He never seeks you out about that. So, tough call when you take that good of a pitcher out of a game, but we want him there for the long haul."
Scherzer said he did want to get to 90 to 95 pitches.
"But they just didn't want to send me out there for the seventh, and I understand that," he said. "Hopefully, I'll be able to get to that 99-pitch count next time out."
Scherzer's return comes at a good time for a Mets rotation that has scuffled a bit of late. With Scherzer leading the way, the Mets went 15-7 in April, and the rotation posted a 2.52 ERA and held opponents to a .183 average and .515 OPS. Since May 19, the rotation had a 4.92 ERA, only 23rd best in the majors, and opposing batters posted a .261 average and .765 OPS.
Showalter didn't commit to when Scherzer will make his next start -- whether it will be on four days or five days of rest -- saying the number of starts he makes before the All-Star break won't change even with some extra rest between outings.
"As I get further away from the injury, it allows me to be even more aggressive with the fastball and be able to step on it even more," Scherzer said. "But I didn't reach back and really grunt. Maybe the grunts will come here in a couple more weeks."
The Mets also are hoping to get Jacob deGrom back soon. He made his first rehab start on Sunday, striking out five of the six batters he faced in a Class A game (he hit the one he didn't strike out) and reaching 100 mph in the process.