WASHINGTON — Jacob deGrom delivered the baseball the same. His velocity was the same. His demeanor was the same. His gait, his grin, his pace — they were all identical to the pitcher the Mets had known in the past.
It had been 391 days since deGrom last climbed atop a mound in a Major League game. When he did, he received a standing ovation from an appreciable group of Mets fans inhabiting enemy territory. That bunch had waited nearly 13 months to shower deGrom with adulation. He repaid the favor by demonstrating all the reasons why they consider his presence so crucial.
In his first start since July 7, 2021, deGrom threw five innings of one-run ball Tuesday night at Nationals Park, striking out six batters and walking none, while hitting 102 mph on the radar gun. It was not enough for the Mets to avoid a 5-1 loss to the Nationals, with most of the damage occurring after deGrom left the game. But it was plenty enough for the Mets to be pleased about the direction of their season, even after a relatively quiet Trade Deadline passed for them earlier in the day.
“It’s what I expect of him,” pitching coach Jeremy Hefner said. “And I think that’s reasonable of me to expect that of him. He’s the greatest pitcher, arguably, of our generation.”
In Hefner’s estimation, everything looked as it ought to. deGrom’s fastball was the headline-maker, but his slider was also “nasty,” as Nationals manager Dave Martinez put it, reaching 95 mph and generating seven swings-and-misses. The only Washington batter to swing at deGrom’s changeup failed to make contact. deGrom even mixed in three curveballs, which he considers his distant fourth-best pitch.
So efficient was deGrom that he did not come close to approaching his limit of 75-80 pitches. The Mets, choosing caution, opted to cut him short after only 59 (46 strikes). He’ll throw up to six innings and 75 pitches next time out.
“I definitely had some nerves early on, but it’s been a year since I’ve been out there — a year-plus,” deGrom said. “It was definitely exciting to be back out there.”
The lone run against deGrom came in the fourth inning, when Victor Robles singled, stole second and scored on Luis García’s RBI double on a 99-mph fastball above the strike zone. Other than that, deGrom was nearly untouchable, allowing one other hit.
“I don’t really know how to describe it,” Hefner said. “When he’s on the mound, it’s always a comforting feeling, because he has the ability just to completely shut down a lineup.”
Now, the question becomes deGrom’s ability to continue taking the mound every fifth day. After missing the entire second half of last season due to right elbow inflammation, the right-hander sat out the first half of this year because of a stress reaction in his right shoulder — an overuse injury that is not guaranteed to disappear forever.
Throughout the latter portion of his rehab assignment, deGrom routinely pitched with an extra day of rest, even taking additional time when he felt soreness in his shoulder. With his next start scheduled for Sunday against the Braves, deGrom won’t have the luxury of such a relaxed pace. But he, Hefner, manager Buck Showalter and the Mets’ staff are confident that deGrom’s injury issues are in the past.
So assured are the Mets that general manager Billy Eppler let Tuesday’s 6 p.m. ET Trade Deadline pass without addressing multiple potential problem areas on the roster, including the team’s catching and lefty relief situations. The quiet Deadline was part of an overarching strategy not to sacrifice the medium-term future in terms of incremental gains for 2022.
It was also an acknowledgement that this autumn, the Mets are going to go as far as deGrom and Max Scherzer take them. That tandem pitched back to back as teammates for the first time on Monday and Tuesday, and while the results weren’t perfect, the Mets expect longer outings and plenty of victories from deGrom in the future.
“He’s had to work really hard over the last 13 months to put himself in the position,” Hefner said. “He’s diagnosed mechanics. We’ve run through the gamut with him, trying to make sure that he gets to do the things he wants to do in his career and also help us win a World Series. That was kind of the first step in this.”
“I haven’t been around as much as I would have liked,” deGrom said, before adding: “I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do.”