'Lowest of lows': After Max Scherzer combusts, the Mets suddenly have an identity crisis

NEW YORK — Max Scherzer is more than his reputation as Mad Max. Oh, he’s still plenty competitive away from the mound — the fire-spitting fierce competitor is less an alter ego and more an outlet — but he’s not some one-dimensional monster. He’s also endlessly curious, surprisingly approachable and a father of three with a fourth on the way.

“I wouldn’t have bitten your heads off!” he protested last weekend when he learned none of the assembled reporters had cut him off to correct him when he misspoke.

See, self-aware, too.

And yet Mets reliever Trevor May called him “almost an urban legend,” as if he exists somewhere between man and myth. The man, like all of us, is multifaceted. More than just the ultimate gamer, the guy who will grit it out and get it done no matter what; more than just the ultimate big-game pitcher you’d want on the mound as much for his intensity as for his fastball.

But for a long time, Max Scherzer has been that gamer, that guy, that big-game pitcher.

And then, in his 22nd career postseason start, he was not. And if he’s not that, who is he?

When Scherzer surrendered four runs in 5⅔ innings last weekend in Atlanta as part of the sweep that cost the team the division, Mets fans could write it off as a fluke. In his first summer in Queens, Scherzer posted the best ERA of his storied, multi-Cy Young career. Slipping from first place into the wild-card round in the final week of the regular season may have pushed fans to consider if this summer’s success was merely the set-up to heighted suffering, but with Scherzer going in Game 1, they could stave off despair. Remember, this team won 101 games — the same as the Braves team that got a bye to the division series by virtue of its better head-to-head record, if that helps — and would play in the postseason for the first time since 2016. This might even be fun.

On Friday night, the sold-out Citi Field crowd was subdued before the Mets even got a chance to bat. Scherzer gave up a two-run shot to former Nationals teammate Josh Bell in the top of the first to give the San Diego Padres a lead that would only grow from there. Like they had in Atlanta, the Mets failed to convert hits into runs, going 1 for 11 with runners in scoring position. But that was a secondary disaster. Scherzer gave up four home runs in the 7-1 loss that has the Mets’ season on the brink with the postseason barely underway.

“He's a guy that a lot of people were leaning on really, really heavily because of his experience and the way that he is to follow his lead,” May said. “So when things aren't going really well for him we have to find that fuel somewhere else. And it's obviously hard to do. It was hard to do in the Atlanta series and it’s hard to do now.”

It was an anomaly no matter how you look at it. In the regular season, the Padres relied on the longball even less than the Mets. This was just the third time this year they’ve hit four home runs in a game. Just the fourth time in his career Scherzer has surrendered as many. Most importantly, the seven earned runs were the most Scherzer has allowed in 27 postseason appearances. On the stage where he usually shines, Mad Max combusted.

When he walked off the mound after 4⅔ innings, Mets fans booed the man who failed to live up to the myth.

“Baseball can take you to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” he said postgame. “And this is one of the lowest of lows.”

A stone-faced Scherzer insisted that his oblique, the source of an injured list stint in September, felt fine and that he thought he had made the necessary adjustments after Atlanta. By the time Francisco Álvarez, a top prospect who had 14 big-league at bats before the playoffs began, struck out looking to end the game, Scherzer already started searching the film for what went wrong and predicted a late night ahead reliving one of the worst starts of his 15-year career.

“I wasn't able to command that fastball the way I usually can,” Scherzer said simply of why he struggled. “That's my bread and butter to be able to set up everything else.”

The Mets could say the same about relying on him at the outset of their playoff run. In a postseason full of unknowns and inexperienced players, he was supposed to be the sure thing to set up everything else.

Scherzer’s identity crisis inspires another broader one in the organization at large: Who are the Mets if not the two-headed dragon with the best top of the rotation in baseball? The hope for this postseason always hinged on having the co-aces of Scherzer and Jacob deGrom. Two things play in October: hitting home runs and missing bats. The Mets lineup lacks power, but their pitchers recorded the most strikeouts of any team in the regular season.

Their best hope now hinges on the fact that Scherzer and deGrom are not actually conjoined, even though it may have felt that way when they both faltered in Atlanta. If they had won the first game, deGrom would await either a necessary Game 3 or the start of the division series. Perhaps that plan itself tempted fate, the way it looked beyond the wild card to account for games not yet guaranteed. But there’s no sense rethinking it now, backed into a corner, the Mets will trust their original No. 1 to keep their season alive.

As good as deGrom is — and his biophysics-defying stuff is unmatched — there is cause for concern there, too. After missing more than a year to injury, deGrom returned in August looking like he might garner Cy Young votes despite missing two-thirds of the season. Through his first seven starts back, he had a 1.66 ERA. And then something changed. Facing mostly bad teams his ERA ballooned to 6.00 in his last four starts of the regular season, culminating in the three-homer game against the Braves a week ago, after which he cited a blister that has ostensibly healed.

None of that will matter if he can step up in his first postseason start in seven years, his first ever at Citi Field, to stave off elimination and extend the Mets’ chances at least through the weekend. If he can’t, a loss would mean not only an abrupt end to a season laded with championship aspirations from the outset, it could also be his last start ever with the team. DeGrom has repeatedly expressed a desire to opt out of his contract and test the market. Maybe he’ll return as a free agent; or maybe this is the Mets’ one shot to capitalize on having him and Scherzer in the same rotation. A loss Saturday would slay the two-headed dragon before it barely even had a chance to do any damage.