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Max Scherzer Knows The Stakes

Max Scherzer before the pitch
John Fisher/Getty Images

It’s hard to be endearing and a maniac, but Max Scherzer pulls it off. While outside of the ballpark he manages to, at least publicly, shed his trademark intensity and be a dad who loves dogs, on the mound he takes no prisoners, suffers no fools, and generally looks so intimidating that it’s hard to imagine anyone ever wanting to cross his path. Scherzer is a goddamn competitor who seemingly lives to pitch in big spots, and opposing managers, umpires, or anyone else who gets in the way of him accomplishing that task should be prepared to face the consequences.

So it should be no surprise that Scherzer, after opting to pitch a rehab start in Syracuse instead of a simpler sim game in Queens, came off the IL and returned to the Mets ready to kill. Facing a team still fighting for a playoff spot in the Milwaukee Brewers, and seeing his first MLB action since Sep. 3, Scherzer showed none of that “left side irritation” that caused him to take a quick break in the first place. Instead, he immediately began pursuit of a feat that’s just barely eluded him a couple of times in his 15-year career: a perfect game. For six innings, Scherzer crushed Brewer after Brewer, throwing a faster fastball than usual at 95 mph and mixing in some banana-peel breaking pitches to strike out nine guys while not allowing anybody to reach base.

Scherzer was completely unreadable to the opposition, looking as good as he ever has in his life, and as the game reached the halfway point it’s likely that Mets fans and other viewers were beginning to feel some tension surrounding the impending big decision for manager Buck Showalter. His starter, returning from a physical setback, was on something like a 70-pitch leash. But how in the world could you get between Max Scherzer and a perfect game? Would the pitcher even allow that to happen, or would he determinedly charge out to the mound inning after inning, refusing to heed any suggestion to cool it?

Showalter decided to pull the plug after six flawless innings, and Scherzer … well, he was actually very chill and happy about it! Those looking for drama and some intriguing baseball beef were surely disappointed, but Scherzer appeared totally satisfied with 18 batters of perfection, plus the promise of both a milestone personal victory and a playoff-clinching win for New York.

Tylor Megill blew the chance at a team perfect game pretty much as soon as he stepped onto the hill in the seventh, but the Mets restored their five-run lead in the top of the eighth and went on to win 7-2. After some brief turbulence last week, when they got swept by the Cubs at home, the team that leads the NL East by one game appears to be back on track and feeling good about themselves, with this victory in Milwaukee serving as their fifth in a row. The Mets’ 94th win also gave the franchise reason to celebrate what will be their first postseason series since their pennant run in 2015.

But there’s so much left for this team to do, and Scherzer, the oldest man on the roster and a veteran of eight playoff teams and two World Series, knows the importance of what lies ahead. The Mets need to stay in front of the Braves for the rest of the regular season to avoid the potential random cruelty of a three-game first-round series, and even if they succeed there they’ll have to play at their peak against three successive opponents. The sting of missing out on a decisive Game 6 NLCS loss last year because of an arm injury likely still lingers in Scherzer’s mind and informs his approach to this season. The necessity of the team being as close to 100 percent as possible when they attempt to tackle this extraordinarily difficult task holds more sway than the glittering personal accomplishment of perfection in mid-September.

“This is what you play the game for,” he said after the win, amid the beer. “You play the game to get in the postseason. The fact that we got here, there’s a lot of ways for it not to work out. For us to be able to find our way into the postseason, it’s awesome. That’s what we celebrate.”

Of his tranquility upon exiting the game, Scherzer added, “I know where I’m at in this rehab process of getting back up there. I wasn’t going to have a chance to complete it. You’ve just got to take your victories when you can get them.”

The most important of those potential victories is still a few weeks away, and Scherzer, who even hinted when he went on the IL that his absence was more about being at full health in October than any immediate concerns, has seen enough to know when to sacrifice regular-season glory. But if Showalter tries to do the same thing next month, he better be prepared to lose a limb.