By Deesha Thosar
FOX Sports MLB Writer
Just over two months into this year’s Major League Baseball season, the Mets had lost both of their aces to injuries.
The rotation was built to be dominant, but it was built around the premise that Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom would provide a 1-2 punch that no other team could match. A cloud of uncertainty hovered. Even as Mets manager Buck Showalter asserted that “the sky’s not falling,” how would New York survive seven-plus weeks without its top arms?
Right away, right-hander Taijuan Walker, left-hander David Peterson and veteran Carlos Carrasco erased that uncertainty. From May 19 to July 4 — the seven weeks Scherzer was on the injured list due to an oblique strain and deGrom was still sidelined due to a stress reaction — Mets starters produced a 3.47 ERA, fourth-best in MLB. Even without their co-aces, the Mets built their National League East lead and kept rolling.
Walker in particular stepped up while Scherzer and deGrom were down. He took the mound every fifth day, recording a 2.56 ERA across nine starts and 55.2 innings. That workload trailed only those of NL starters Sandy Alcantara, Aaron Nola and Adam Wainwright during that stretch. Walker posted a first half worthy of an All-Star nod, and the Mets wouldn’t be leading the NL East by 4.5 games were it not for steady performances from the back end of the rotation.
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But now the script has flipped. Carrasco is sidelined due to an oblique strain and expected to be out for another month or more. Walker left his start Tuesday in Atlanta after just two innings once his back “locked up.” He was diagnosed with back spasms, and it was immediately unclear whether he would be healthy enough to make his next start.
As unfortunate as losing two consistent starters is for Showalter and the Mets, the club is decently equipped to handle this adversity. Their immediate pitching depth includes southpaw Peterson, who is likely to fill in for one of Carrasco or Walker, and right-hander Trevor Williams, the staff’s Swiss Army knife who has made eight starts and 14 relief appearances and is expected to slide back into the rotation.
The pitching depth helps, but the path through this injury bug goes back to the blueprint the Mets designed in the offseason. Walker, Carrasco and others stepped up in the first half. Their injuries, to some degree, might be the result of the workload and pressure that were dialed up while the aces were out.
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The responsibility to get out of this injury mess and maintain the lead in the division now rests on the Mets’ formidable 1-2 punch that has already begun vexing opposing lineups.
Scherzer has a 1.82 ERA in nine starts since he returned from the IL, ranked fifth among qualified starters in MLB in that span. His 0.91 WHIP in that stretch is tied for seventh in the league, better than Marlins right-hander Alcantara, the favorite to win the NL Cy Young award. Scherzer’s 31.4% strikeout rate is in line with his career K numbers and ranks seventh among starters with a minimum of 100 innings pitched.
DeGrom has been an “alien,” per teammate Chris Bassitt, since his Aug. 2 season debut. New York’s flamethrower has posted a 1.62 ERA and 0.72 FIP in three starts and 16.2 innings this month. Entering Thursday, deGrom had struck out exactly half of the batters he had faced. It’s a small sample, but for the sixth consecutive year, his average fastball velocity is up from the previous season. Currently, his heater is on average the highest it has ever been, at 99.3 mph.
There are no two better pitchers who could be tasked with carrying a rotation than Scherzer and deGrom, both of whom not only understand the assignment but also thrive in it. Tell Scherzer that the Mets’ bullpen is short and taxed, and he’ll aim to pitch eight innings. DeGrom has the same cutthroat attitude, but at the moment, he’s held back by his pitch limit. The 34-year-old has not yet pitched more than six innings this season, and he’ll need two or three more starts before he’s considered full bore.
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What’s more, it’s not just the Mets’ rotation that Scherzer and deGrom will be carrying.
The Amazin’s are dealing with a burst of injuries to third baseman Eduardo Escobar (oblique strain), utility man Luis Guillorme (groin strain) and catcher Tomas Nido (non-baseball-related illness). The promotion of No. 2 prospect Brett Baty, who figures to start third base most days while Escobar and Guillorme are sidelined, certainly helps provide a spark and fill a role. But the 22-year-old rookie is not tasked with the burden of ensuring the Mets keep their lead; that duty will always rest with the club’s veterans and stars.
The Mets (76-42) were always going to go as far as Scherzer and deGrom could take them. Now is the moment for the co-aces to prove they can, most importantly, stay healthy and continue shutting down offenses every fifth day. And they won’t be alone in that endeavor. Right-hander Bassitt has recorded the best ERA (1.72) in the Mets’ rotation since July 5, which is when Scherzer came off the IL.
These next few weeks will give us a glimpse of what the trio of Scherzer, deGrom and Bassitt can accomplish as the calendar flips to the postseason. The Mets just need to survive long enough to make it there.
Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets for three-and-a-half seasons as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. She never misses a Rafael Nadal match, no matter what country or time zone he’s playing in. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.
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