PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Max Scherzer wanted one more batter. He always does. So Scherzer saved Mets pitching coach Jeremy Hefner the steps. As Hefner walked from the dugout toward the mound, he barely reached the foul line before Scherzer told him he felt fine.

A few pitches later, a called strike changed the count to 2-2. Baserunners occupied second and third. As the crowd at Clover Park began cheering, Scherzer unleashed a 95-mph fastball high and away. Clearly overmatched, the Nationals’ 22-year-old catcher Israel Pineda swung through it. Scherzer twirled on the mound, completing his follow-through. Inning over.

With his first outing of Grapefruit League action complete on Sunday after two innings and 43 pitches, Scherzer made a beeline for the home plate umpire. After using Major League Baseball’s new rules to his advantage during his first spring training start of 2023, Scherzer inquired whether his tactics were permitted. A lengthy conversation followed.

Max Scherzer speaks with home plate umpire David Rackley during Sunday’s game. (Reinhold Matay / USA Today)

Scherzer was double-checking if he could throw a pitch as soon as the batter’s eyes were on him — as he had at times during the outing — as opposed to waiting until there were eight seconds left on the pitch clock.

Indeed, Scherzer was operating legally.

Shrewdly, but legally.

“I can’t pitch until ‘8’ (seconds left), but as soon as his eyes are up, I can go,” said Scherzer, explaining the conversation he had with the umpire in front of the Mets’ dugout. “I already had the pitch call and we already know it, so I can come set. Now, I can’t fire until his eyes are up on me. But if his eyes are up on me with 12 seconds left, I can fire. So, just another play I can use.”

Scherzer has long desired to work quickly. In the past, batters have slowed him down, he said. Last season, only 35 pitchers (minimum 100 innings) used a quicker pace between pitches than Scherzer, according to FanGraphs. If Scherzer’s first spring outing was any indication, expect even more of a livelier flow — sometimes.

“I can work extremely quick or I can work extremely slow,” Scherzer said. “There’s another layer to mess with the hitter’s timing.”

In the first inning of the Mets’ 6-3 win over the Nationals, Scherzer averaged fewer than 10 seconds between pitches. New catcher Omar Narváez called some of the game, with Scherzer instinctually making decisions as well. Wearing the PitchCom device on the back of his glove, Scherzer called some pitches in an effort to work faster. He would catch the ball, give Narváez instruction, take one step toward the rubber, then another, come set and look ready to throw. His 1-2-3 frame lasted just four minutes.

On the concourse, a spectator who arrived late asked, “They played a half-inning already?”


“That was quick,” another fan said.

When there were runners on base in the second inning, things changed. Scherzer would often stand on the rubber and deliberately hold the ball. He wouldn’t throw a pitch until the timer dwindled to one second.

“I can completely dictate pace,” Scherzer said. “The rule change of the hitter having only one timeout, it changes the complete dynamic of the hitter and pitcher. I love it.”

As if the Mets’ co-aces needed any additional help …

Justin Verlander throws a bullpen session on Feb. 21. (Rich Storry / USA Today)

Three hours earlier, Justin Verlander tossed a live bullpen. Afterward, he said he has continued to work on his changeup, a pitch he has seldom used in the past. With the Astros last season, Verlander threw a changeup just 2.4 percent of the time. In addition to his fastball, slider and curveball, Verlander expressed some optimism that the pitch could end up being another tool.

“I worked at it so I want to use it,” Verlander said. “I don’t want to waste my time. And there’s a lot of guys who call for changeups, especially some flat-bat right-handers who stay on my fastball up, stay on my slider away. It’d be nice to be able to have something that kind of breaks the opposite direction underneath their barrel.”

A few weeks into spring training, the similarities between Scherzer, 38, and Verlander, 40, appear obvious. They remain elite at advanced ages for pitchers because they constantly seek improvement and find edges.

The yearlong key for both will be keeping them healthy.

Last year, left oblique issues robbed Scherzer of time. Ahead of this year, Scherzer said he huddled with trainers to figure out all the exercises he needed to implement in his program to make sure his left side remains strong. At the start of spring training, Scherzer listed throwing 200 innings as a goal. He hasn’t surpassed that mark since 2018. If the Mets skip starts and use a six-man rotation at some points of the season, as expected, then Scherzer may not reach that number. That’d be fine so long as he stays healthy. In order to do that, Scherzer plans to be a keen listener to his body.

Verlander can relate. At the very beginning of last year, he said, he experienced some minor elbow soreness during his first few starts in his return from Tommy John surgery. Verlander compared the feeling to seeing a flashing yellow light. Caution advised. He thought to himself, “Don’t be stupid. Don’t rush.” As last season progressed, he began feeling better. As a preventive measure from that reoccurring, Verlander started throwing a tad earlier than usual over the winter. He expects to make his first Grapefruit League start in five or six days. This spring training, he said, has felt normal.

“Thank goodness,” Verlander said. “So far, so good.”

Watching Scherzer and Verlander continue to thrive while experimenting with new wrinkles early on in spring training painted a promising picture. As catcher Tomás Nido put it, “An exciting preview.” For the Mets, the ultra-important duo being able to do so in the months to come would look even better.

(Top photo: Reinhold Matay / USA Today)


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