BY LESLIE MONTEIRO
(Photo credit: Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
At around 4:29 p.m. Jacob deGrom raced to the mound for his warm-up toss. His entrance song of “Simple Man” blared through the speakers.
This wasn’t a run-of-the-mill warm-up toss. Not on this Sunday.
He was pitching in front of his home crowd for the first time in a year. Since 396 days, to be exact. The fans were excited to see him pitch. Nerves would set it in for everyone, including the Mets ace. His 200th Major League start had the feel of the main event.
For deGrom, it was understandable why he would be nervous. He did not want to come out looking bad after Mets fans waited for his presence. For Mets fans, it was like seeing an old friend again. They don’t know how long he can keep doing this forever, especially with him having injury issues in recent issues.
Even deGrom has to wonder about his immortality. At 34, he knows he can’t throw at the level he has been pitching forever.
Moments like Sunday are ones he and the fans can appreciate forever. He was so good that he made the Mets take four out of five against the Atlanta Braves after a 5-2 victory on Sunday as a footnote.
deGrom’s first pitch of the game to Dansby Swanson resulted in a flyout. Of course, it was. What did you expect? That’s Jacob deGrom. A guy who can make hitters look silly on a one-out pitch.
Then, Matt Olson became deGrom’s 1,512 strikeout victim of his career for the second out of the first inning.
deGrom finished the inning by striking out Austin Riley.
He threw 99 mph on the first pitch, 101 on the second pitch, 100 on the third pitch, 101 on the fourth pitch, 102 on the fifth pitch that struck out Olson, 101 on the sixth pitch, 100 on the seventh pitch, 101 on the eighth pitch, 95 on the ninth pitch and striking out Riley at 96 mph on the tenth pitch to end the first inning. All of his pitches were sliders.
Just the first inning, you knew the Mets stopper would not be denied. It’s like he was as good as new just coming back from an injury after two starts. In his first start since being activated from the injured list, he struck out six Washington Nationals while allowing one run and three hits in five innings.
In his second start, he struck out 12 Braves while throwing at 95 mph, and he finished the day allowing two runs on one hit in 5 ⅔ innings by daring the opponent to hit his sliders. He set a Major League record for all-time strikeouts in the first 200 starts at 1,523. Prior to him giving up a walk to Ehire Adrianza and a two-run home run to Swanson on the 76th pitch of his day, he retired the first 17 batters and recorded 15 straight outs on 56 pitches. He was so good that one has to wonder if he purposely gave up a meatball to Swanson just to validate Buck Showalter’s decision to take him out of the game.
There was no way deGrom was going to complete a perfect game or a no-hitter after coming off the injured list. The Mets know they need him in October for them to win a championship. He was on a pitch count no matter what. It would have been the right decision even if he was taken out of the game with a perfect game in tact.
When Swanson hit it out, Showalter knew he did not have to answer questions or deal with critics about taking his ace out early.
No one really knew what to expect out of deGrom after two starts. Fans couldn’t have known he would be this good. Even the Mets had to wonder. Typically, it takes a while for players to find their footing after coming off the injured list. For deGrom, he expected it. That’s just who he is. He always bets on himself that he will be great when he is out there. This explains why he is not afraid to opt-out of his contract and be a free agent this offseason. He knows he can command top dollar because he is so good.
But again, how long can he continue with this? Outside of Tom Brady, Father Time is undefeated against pro athletes. He will eventually reach his mortality. That’s just the lay of the land in professional sports. Nothing lasts forever. His chronic injuries lately should be a reminder of that.
Still, a day like Sunday made everyone forget about the time he has been on the injured list or his opt-out situation. It was about the game and his performance. He captivated the fans by frustrating the Braves the way hitters could not hit Bugs Bunny’s slow ball pitch. It’s why we watch sports so that we can be captivated by an athlete’s performance like deGrom’s that we can talk about for days.
There’s no doubt deGrom is one of the best pitchers that ever pitched for a Met. He will likely be in the Met Hall of Fame. His jersey will be retired. We will be celebrating him after he retires the way we do with Tom Seaver, Ed Kranepool, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Keith Hernandez, Jerry Koosman, Mike Piazza and other Met greats.
Here’s hoping the Mets ace can pitch like this for the next few years. Here’s hoping injuries don’t derail him again. For him to not miss a beat after spending a year on the injured list, it shows how special he is.
Sunday made the Mets and their fans think of the possibilities of what can be in the postseason. With the Mets boasting deGrom and Max Scherzer as the difference-making duo, it’s no wonder why they like their chances of winning the World Series. Despite how great the Los Angeles Dodgers and Braves are and how loaded the San Diego Padres are offensively, the Mets can beat them because of their ace duo.
But on this Sunday, it wasn’t about the postseason, opt-out or the long layoff. It was his return that made the fanbase leave Citi Field happy.
This writer can be reached on Twitter at: @LeslieMonteiro6
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