NEW YORK — An hour and a half before the New York Mets’ workout was supposed to begin Thursday afternoon, Max Scherzer stood on the mound at Citi Field. He bounced off it to field a few simulated bunts and throw to first. He made some throws to second. He even practiced covering first.
Most pitchers shake their head and groan when made to do things like that in the early days of spring training, let alone volunteer to do them before starting their team’s first postseason game. But Scherzer is different — antsier, too consumed with all this to sit still even if he has fielded those bunts a thousand times. Days such as this, and nights such as Friday’s first-round opener against the San Diego Padres, are the reason the Mets committed $130 million to him over three years.
“[Scherzer pitching Game 1 of the playoffs] was in the model,” Mets General Manager Billy Eppler said with a smile. “That was in the process. We figured we could get him in a postseason situation.”
What Eppler and his front office really envisioned, when they let themselves hope for the best, was pairing Scherzer with Jacob deGrom in a short series and knowing no one in the game could offer a better one-two pitching punch. But while Scherzer seemed eager to get on the mound as soon as possible, neither Eppler nor Manager Buck Showalter will say for sure when deGrom will pitch in the inaugural best-of-three first-round series — or even whether deGrom will pitch in the series at all.
The winner will face the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers in the next round. And the Mets would much rather have deGrom available to start the first game of that series if possible. To have deGrom available for Game 1 of a division series Tuesday, they would need to avoid using him this weekend. To get to Game 1 of a division series Tuesday, the Mets need to win two games before the Padres do.
“The focus is completely on tomorrow night’s game, but when you’re doing rosters and stuff, without jeopardizing being able to put your best foot forward in these three games, you have to at least consider [what comes next]. Everybody does,” Showalter said. “The tiebreaker will always be what’s best for these three games.”
Showalter maintains an aversion to offering any more information to the public than is absolutely necessary, lest the opponent have a few extra hours to game plan.
But he did say Thursday that what happens in Game 1 on Friday night will likely factor into what happens in Game 2. He also said deGrom and No. 3 starter Chris Bassitt would both be ready to pitch Game 2 if necessary. So though no one around the Mets has said for sure, the team’s calculus seems to be as follows: If they win Game 1, they can go to Bassitt in Game 2, hoping to close out the series without using deGrom.
But if the Mets lose Game 1, and are therefore on the verge of elimination, they could use deGrom in Game 2 in hopes of forcing a Game 3 started by Bassitt.
“I’m not going to broadcast that today to the Padres if that is the case,” Showalter said. “We’ll see what postgame [Friday] brings.”
Also relevant to the decision is that as good as deGrom has been for the Mets at times during the last few years, he has had issues lately. After missing the first four months of the season with a UCL strain and shoulder trouble, he looked like himself again for much of August. But in his four starts leading up to the end of the regular season, he flashed mediocrity: He has a 6.00 ERA in his past four starts. He left the last one with a blister.
Showalter said deGrom is treating the blister and that he doesn’t expect it to be a problem. But blisters do not often go quietly. And deGrom is not known for his sturdiness. Holding deGrom for games the Mets may not get the chance to play is risky. Pitching him in one they will play is no sure thing, either.
“We got to take care of business starting on day one. That starts tomorrow with Max,” Eppler said. “What happens after that, we’ll just kind of take all the information that comes in. … We’ll take that and make the decisions on day two.”
Eppler deferred to Showalter when asked about what the Mets told deGrom and Bassitt about their schedules. Showalter, of course, demurred. As he finished his news conference Thursday, someone told him the Padres had just done the unthinkable: They announced Blake Snell as their Game 2 starter. Showalter barely reacted. After all, the Padres could have been watching.