WASHINGTON — Jacob deGrom delivered the same to baseball. His speed was also the same. His behavior was the same. His gait, his smile, his speed — all of them resembled the pitcher the Mets had known before.
It had been 391 days since deGrom last took the mound in a Major League game. When he did, he received a standing ovation from an appreciative group of Mets fans living in enemy territory. The crowd had waited nearly 13 months for DeGrom to shower them with joy. He returned the favor by showing all the reasons why his presence was so important.
In his first start since July 7, 2021, deGrom threw five one-run innings Tuesday night at Nationals Park, striking out six batters and walking none, while hitting 102 mph on the radar gun. It wasn’t enough for the Mets to avoid a 5-1 loss to the Nationals as most of the damage was done after deGrom left the game. But it was enough for the Mets to be pleased with the direction of their season, even after a relatively quiet trade deadline passed for them earlier in the day.
“That’s what I expect from him,” pitching coach Jeremy Hefner said. “And I think it’s reasonable of me to expect that from him. He is the greatest pitcher of our generation.
According to Hefner’s estimation, everything looked as it should. DeGrom’s fastball was a headline-maker, but his slider was also “destroying,” as Nationals manager Dave Martinez said it reached 95 mph and produced seven swing-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 fourth-best pitch by far.
DeGrom was so efficient that he never reached his 75-80 pitch limit. The Mets erred on the side of caution and decided to cut him after just 59 (46 strikeouts). The next time he would go six innings and 75 pitches.
“I definitely had some nerves early on, but it’s been a year since I’ve been there — a year plus,” deGrom said. “It was definitely exciting to be back there.”
The only run against deGrom came in the fourth inning, when Victor Robles singled, stole second and scored on Luis Garcia’s RBI double on a 99-mph fastball above the strike zone. Other than that, deGrom was nearly untouchable, leading to another hit.
“I don’t really know how to describe it,” Hefner said. “When he’s on the mound, he’s always looked comforting, because he has the ability to completely shut down the 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 with right elbow inflammation, the right-hander sat out the first half of this year with a stress reaction in his right shoulder — an overuse injury that isn’t guaranteed to go away permanently.
In the latter part of his rehab stint, deGrom regularly took extra days off, even taking extra time off when his shoulder hurt. With his next start scheduled for Sunday against the Braves, deGrom won’t have the luxury of such a comfortable pace. But he, Hefner, manager Buck Showalter and the Mets staff are confident that deGrom’s injury problems are in the past.
General Manager Billy Eppler announced Tuesday’s 6 p.m. ET trade deadline without addressing several potential problem areas on the roster, including the team’s catching and lefty relief situations. The quiet deadline was part of a broader strategy not to sacrifice medium-term prospects in terms of increased profits for 2022.
It was also an acknowledgment that, this fall, Mets deGrom and Max Scherzer would carry them. That tandem returned as teammates for the first time Monday and Tuesday, and while the results weren’t perfect, the Mets expect long outings and plenty of wins from deGrom in the future.
Hefner said, “He’s had to work really hard over the last 13 months to put himself in this position. “He’s diagnosed the mechanics. We’ve run with him a lot of times trying to make sure he gets the things he wants to do in his career and help him win a World Series. This was the first step in that.”
“I haven’t been around as much as I would have liked,” deGrom said before adding: “I’m excited to see what we can do.”