Can MLB’s most expensive team shake off listless start?

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WASHINGTON – Max Scherzer used to attack the streets and bridges surrounding Nationals Park on foot, his legendary between-starts running routine often leaving teammates in the dust if they dared join the Nationals ace.

Now one of the New York Mets’ two $43.3 million men atop their rotation, Scherzer on Sunday made his first 2023 start at his old park, and as he wheezed and huffed and puffed through five innings, the younger man who once zipped up and over the Douglass Bridge might not have recognized the 38-year-old one on the mound.

Then again, young Max never needed the concessions to age this one does.

“The last six days,” Scherzer said Sunday night, “I haven’t done a thing.

“I’ve been sitting in a neck brace.”

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Yet not all is lost.

See, the forced inactivity that enabled Scherzer to make his start also allowed his aching back, his barking scapula, his tenuous lat to calm down. It should allow Scherzer greater freedom of movement in future starts and in this one, he kept himself together long enough to pitch five innings, to goose his fastball back to 94 mph, and push the Mets toward a victory that nudged their record to 20-21.

These modest benchmarks are not at all what Scherzer or the Mets envisioned in this, the season of the $350 million payroll. Yet the club’s ability to avert disaster when so many parts are misfiring means the club can virtually write off this first quarter of the season, what with their heads nearly above water despite it all.

“We’re a good team,” Scherzer insists. “There’s plenty of good teams in the league. This group can win. We all know it.

“And we’re all getting our footing and getting it going.”

At long last, a home debut

It is nearly Memorial Day, and Justin Verlander has yet to throw a pitch at Citi Field this season.

That will change Tuesday, when Verlander, signed to an identical two-year deal to Scherzer’s that will pay him $43.3 million a year, is scheduled to face the Tampa Bay Rays. That home debut – Verlander has started twice on the road – is not at all what owner Steve Cohen had in mind when he pushed the team payroll to a major league record both in salary and luxury tax commitments, which approach $380 million.

Yet Verlander is 40, and the teres major strain near his right lat was upsetting if not shocking. The Mets took extra care in his rehab, even as lefty starter Jose Quintana suffered a rib injury that will sideline him into July and Carlos Carrasco’s elbow inflamed, knocking him out since April 15.

It is the curse of building a roster around veterans but also the blessing of not feeling compelled to panic. Or maybe going about this the opposite way has its appeal.

See, the Mets won 101 games last year, amassing a huge lead in the NL East even as two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom sat out until August with a scapula injury. De Grom came back and strangely, it didn’t matter – the red-hot Atlanta Braves stole the division from them and the San Diego Padres ushered them out in three games of an NL wild card series.

How much, really, does 20-21 and 5 ½ games behind the Braves matter?

“It’s a long season. We know that,” says outfielder Mark Canha, who has been one of several struggling Mets bats but recorded two hits in one inning of Sunday’s 8-2 win. “It’s important to never get too high or too low and go about your business every day.”

Time for a reset

The lows have been more annoying than anything resembling rock bottom. The offense has been a mélange of soft contact and poor pitch recognition and inconsistency. Brandon Nimmo, freshly signed to a $162 million deal, looks bound for his first All-Star Game, with an .863 OPS out of center field.

Beyond that, though, slugger Pete Alonso has 13 homers but a .237 batting average. Shortstop Francisco Lindor’s .309 OBP makes his six homers and fairly frequent clutch hits seem insufficient. Canha (.236/.307/.390) and Starling Marte (.235/.299/.288) are both significantly underperforming their 2022 debuts in Queens.

“It’s not where we need to be,” acknowledges reigning batting champ Jeff McNeil, whose .264 average is well off his .305 lifetime mark. “We need to turn it around.”

Says manager Buck Showalter: “You pull so hard for them, because I see all the things they do and how much they want it and sometimes it’s hard to get in the flow of it at this level. It’s the best players in the world.”

Beyond that, Scherzer served a 10-game suspension when umpires caught him with what they said were foreign substances on his glove, and his neck spasms emerged after he was hit hard in his return from suspension.

A summer filled with unknowns awaits. Atlanta now has its own pitching concerns, with Max Fried and Kyle Wright both shelved indefinitely. The similarly loaded Phillies are just a half-game better than the Mets; they reached Game 6 of the World Series in 2022 even after starting 21-29 and firing their manager.

The Mets need not look to those Phillies for inspiration. They’re not that bad off and nobody, it seems, will run away with this. All the more reason for baseball’s most expensive team ever to flush the first 41 games.

Nothing gained – but also nothing lost.

“Obviously we would like to have a lot more wins,” says designated hitter Dan Vogelbach. “But through anything, you can learn. If this is the quarter of the season we struggle with, we can take this and move forward and start over.

“Hopefully, we’re talking at the (end) of the year about how great of ball we played for the last three quarters.”

Like their aging aces, it’s not the path they prefer, but it is navigable.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY