How troubling were Justin Verlander’s injuries and Max Scherzer’s sixth inning for the Mets?

/ 03/30/2023; Miami, FL, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Max Scherzer (21) delivers a pitch in the fifth inning against the Miami Marlins at LoanDepot Park.

MIAMI –– Garret Cooper Had just soiled the heater. He was there.

Now Max Scherzer and catcher Omar Narvaez had a choice – fastball or off-speed on the 0-1 pitch. They went fastball.

It was mid-mid and Cooper was ready. He drove the ball over the midfield wall, and Scherzer went from the Marlins’ opening-day dominance to a 3-0 lead. He gathered himself to strike Jazz Chisholm Jr. then left with the game tied.

It worked out well in the end. The Mets won back 5-3. But it’s worth examining two ominous developments at the top of their starting rotation, an area vital to the team’s hopes of fighting for a championship: Scherzer threw a couple of improper meatballs in the sixth and Justin Verlander hit the injured list with a light strain on his teres major – the armpit area, which is close to the shoulder.

Earlier, I asked a scout who was watching the Mets every day during the final week of spring training a purposefully generic question: What was the team looking like coming out of camp?

The scout immediately thought of the team’s two aces, which says something about their importance.

“Usually you see these top guys really bang on their last spring starts,” he said. “But Max looked off balance from messing around with using the pitch clock, and Verlander had no control over his fastball and breaking ball.”

Put simply, if Scherzer and Verlander serve up like the Hall-of-Famers-in-Waiting they are, the Mets will be World Series contenders. If they’re injured, incapacitated, or otherwise showing their age, the Mets will fight.

Verlander said he was relieved the injury wasn’t in his lat and greatly downplayed its severity by noting he would continue playing catch. Other Mets officials agreed, and the players believed them; this was no sad clubhouse.

The surprise injury brought an added element of psychological trauma at Metsland, from which the team and their fans are finally breaking free Jacob de Grom and its intolerable unavailability. Verlander should be more reliable. Maybe he will be, but that was an unexpected disappointment early in his Mets career.

One consolation: When the Phillies ruined deGrom’s debut with the Texas Rangers by bombing him for five runs in 3 ⅔ innings, that wasn’t the Mets’ problem. It’s a relief to be under the weight of deGrom’s ups and downs. And for all deGrom’s talk about being a future Hall of Famer, Verlander is indeed one.

Neither he nor jokers Buck Showalter still pitching coach Jeremy Hefner accepted the premise that he was tired in the sixth inning on Thursday. It seemed to me that a pair of long bats in the fourth – seven pitches walk Jean Segura and a double play by Cooper that lasted nine pitches – grinding some of the edges of his stuff. But what do I know?

The problem in the sixth, the Mets said, wasn’t power or energy, it was pitch selection. After Cooper almost clocked Scherzer’s fastball on the first pitch, he probably should have gone with the slider for a change in speed before returning to the heater.

Instead, he turned back to that fastball. At 93 mph, Scherzer can’t afford to shoot over the center of the plate like he did at Cooper. All three Miami extra-base hits in the sixth came from Scherzer Fastballs.

All night Scherzer’s slider had ridiculed the Marlins. He doesn’t have the speed of a Verlander or deGrom or Gerrit Kohl, but he still spins his breaking ball as well as almost anyone.

Had he done that to Cooper, he would have given the Mets six dominant innings Thursday just as Cole did for the Yankees. Then we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all.

But coincidentally, one Mets ace was great for five innings on opening day, and the other ended up on the injured list. It takes more than that to win a World Series.

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