WASHINGTON — Only two games into the season, the Mets and Nationals hate each other, and it’s unrelated to Max Scherzer switching sides in the rivalry.
Scherzer returned to his old stomping ground Friday night and received a warm ovation upon taking the mound. A night earlier, the Nationals honored their former ace with a video tribute during pregame introductions.
The warm and fuzzy portion of Mets-Nationals is over.
Already angry about high fastballs that had plunked James McCann and hit Pete Alonso all too close to the face the previous night, the Mets rightly erupted in the fifth inning, after Francisco Lindor hit the ground in the batter’s box. Lindor had been drilled in the protective jaw covering by Steve Cishek while squaring to bunt.
Buck Showalter, irate, took to the field to voice his displeasure to plate umpire Chris Guccione. Mets players followed their manager from the dugout, and both benches and bullpens emptied.
During the fray (which thankfully didn’t include much more than players brushing up against each other and yelling), Lindor arose without help and was examined by trainer Brian Chicklo. The shortstop left the field, the latest Mets player who looks to have barely avoided a serious injury. The Mets announced X-rays were negative on Lindor’s jaw and he passed concussion protocol.
The previous night, Alonso was fortunate Mason Thompson’s high-and-tight pitch in the ninth inning struck the protective jaw covering on his helmet after it skimmed his arm. Alonso escaped with a split lip. It might have been missing teeth if not for the plastic flap.
These intra-division feuds can get messy. We saw it last year, when the Mets played in Philadelphia two weeks after Phillies reliever Jose Alvarado had drilled Michael Conforto in the wrist. Dominic Smith didn’t forget and began jawing with Alvarado, after the pitcher began pumping his fist to celebrate an inning-ending strikeout. Benches emptied.
If Scherzer had any temptation to retaliate against his former teammates, he resisted. Umpiring crew chief Mark Carlson was waiting for the right-hander when he returned to the mound for the fifth, and while it wasn’t immediately known what Carlson said to him, you can bet it wasn’t “Drill Juan Soto.”
Scherzer got the final laugh in that he beat the Nationals, on a night the Mets won 7-3. His only blip was a mammoth two-run homer surrendered to Josh Bell in the fourth inning. Scherzer allowed three hits and struck out six over six innings. Considering there were questions this week over whether he would take his first turn in the rotation, following hamstring tightness, the Mets had to be happy.
That Scherzer’s Mets debut had to be attached to an ugly beaning and the benches emptying was unfortunate.
Before the game, Lindor recalled hearing from Steve Cohen in the offseason that the team was trying to acquire a top talent, but the owner wouldn’t say who. Lindor later attended the MLB Players’ Association executive subcommittee meetings in Dallas and found it curious that Scherzer, another member of the group, wasn’t present. It was then Lindor found out the Mets had agreed to a three-year contract worth $130 million with Scherzer.
Suddenly, the Mets had an ace to join Jacob deGrom in the rotation and give the Mets a 1-2 punch that, if healthy, was capable of topping any in baseball.
Scherzer’s arrival also gave the Mets a voice in the clubhouse who had to be respected, as a player who owned a World Series ring.
“Initially the words carry a lot of weight, but you still have to kind of back it up and [Scherzer] knows that more than anybody,” Showalter said. “Everybody in there knows Max’s background.”
Scherzer’s significance to the club only increased in the last week, after deGrom was diagnosed with a stress reaction in his right scapula that, in a best case scenario, will only keep him removed from the rotation until the end of May.
So until deGrom can return, it will be Scherzer’s turn in the rotation that will carry most of the anticipation.
On top of that, there will be another 17 meetings between the Mets and Nationals this season. The animosity has just begun.