Max Scherzer returns to Citi Field, says reason for Mets' flop a `billion-dollar question'

NEW YORK (AP) — Max Scherzer returned to Citi Field on Monday as a member of the Texas Rangers — still mystified as to how the New York Mets’ season, which began with championship hopes for a team with the largest payroll in major league history, unspooled to the point that he was part of a trade-deadline selloff.

“That’s a billion-dollar question, because if you could answer that question, I think everybody would want to tell you how you actually win here at the major league level,” Scherzer said in the Rangers’ dugout before the opener of a three-game series against the Mets.

The three-time Cy Young Award winner, who made his fifth start for Texas on Saturday, will not pitch this week against the Mets, who entered Monday last in the NL East and nine games out of a playoff spot. New York hasn’t finished in last place since 2003 and hasn’t been in last place this late in a season since 2005.

“I don’t know,” Scherzer said. “It was just a combination of everything. It just seemed like when we pitched, we didn’t hit. If we hit, we didn’t pitch. And if we did both, then maybe the bullpen didn’t do its job. It was just like a combination of everything of things just not going right.”

Scherzer was traded with cash to the Rangers for Double-A prospect Luisangel Acuña — the younger brother of Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr. — on July 30, fewer than 48 hours after winning his final start for New York.

Scherzer said he and other Mets veterans hoped owner Steve Cohen and general manager Billy Eppler would keep the team together in hopes of making a late playoff push or contending again in 2024. New York went 101-61 during Scherzer’s first season with the team last year, when it lost a best-of-three wild-card series to the San Diego Padres in the first round of the playoffs.

“That was our wishful thinking,” Scherzer said. “We still believed that we could still find a way to get back into the ’23 playoff race. We didn’t think we were out of it. I get where our record was and where we’re at in the standings and how we were playing. I’m not oblivious. But in that clubhouse, we absolutely believed we had a team that could win.”

The Mets, who opened the season with a payroll of more than $350 million, rebuilt their farm system by trading impending free agents David Robertson, Mark Canha, Tommy Pham and Dominic Leone at the deadline along with Justin Verlander, who was signed through 2024 with a 2025 option. As part of the trade with the Rangers, Scherzer exercised his $43.3 million player option for 2024.

“The common viewpoint amongst all of us players was OK, let’s go for it in 2024, we’ve got the talent here to do it,” Scherzer said. “And it became obvious that wasn’t the direction.”

Scherzer acknowledged his struggles to perform at his usual level this season for the Mets. The 39-year-old right-hander went 9-4 with a 4.01 ERA — almost a full run higher than his career mark — while dealing with neck and shoulder injuries. He also served a 10-game suspension after being ejected from an April game at Dodger Stadium for having an illegal sticky substance on his hand.

“I wish I would have pitched better,” Scherzer said. “I don’t like to point fingers unless I’m pointing fingers at myself. And I can definitely point the finger at myself.”

Scherzer is 3-1 with a 2.64 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 30 2/3 innings for the Rangers, who fell out of first place in the AL West for the first time since April 8 by losing Sunday for the ninth time in 10 games.

Texas manager Bruce Bochy said the outgoing Scherzer has fit in well with his new teammates, including a familiar face in former Mets ace Jacob deGrom, who signed a five-year deal with Texas last December but underwent Tommy John surgery after making six starts. Scherzer said he began trading barbs and inside jokes with deGrom as soon as he joined the Rangers.

“He’s got a lot of energy, I tell you,” Bochy said. “This guy watches the game — not just his games but games that he’s not pitching in. He’s got a great sense of humor, too. He’s had me laughing a few times in the dugout through these tough times.”