The Citi Field crowd acknowledged Jacob deGrom’s first at-bat Wednesday with a substantial ovation and chanted “MVP, MVP” when alerted in the fourth inning that the righty had become the second fastest pitcher to 1,500 strikeouts.
Both were well earned. Of course.
Yet, the best tribute to who deGrom has become came in the fifth inning when Jace Peterson hit a tie-breaking homer. The ball cleared the wall and … silence.
It was a quiet borne of disbelief. It is a sound familiar to anyone who was ever in Yankee Stadium when Mariano Rivera failed. The template of overwhelming success was so strong that the opposite brought shock, perhaps a bit of awe, certainly bewilderment.
This is where deGrom is now. He has raised his level to where any run — certainly one generated when he is locked in and has two strikes on a hitter — feels as probable as Francisco Lindor and Jeff McNeil actually fighting over whether a rodent they eyeballed was a raccoon or a rat.
“To me it is surprising when he gives up anything,” Luis Rojas said.
It was so startling that 20,000-plus went quiet enough that you could hear a win drop. That the Mets did not lose speaks to a growing sense of a special season. They inflicted the first homer and blown save on Josh Hader when Jose Peraza went deep to tie the score in the seventh (and final regulation inning in a doubleheader) then walked-off Milwaukee, 4-3, on McNeil’s two-run single in the eighth.
It assured the Mets’ a series victory over the NL Central-leading Brewers, further galvanizing the Mets as the strong NL East favorite. And no opponent would want to see the Mets in October as long as deGrom is healthy enough to start Game 1.
To that end, deGrom announced he would not even attend the All-Star Game. And that is the best decision for a pitcher who has endured injury in the first half and a team that needs him rather than inflicting his body to the extra duress that comes with pitching at altitude in Colorado. But the sport is deprived, the game is hurt, when the best pitcher in the world does not use this large a platform to show his genius.
For the 33-year-old righty is in such a class of 1. He is so good that in his past two starts he has surrendered five runs in 14 innings, walked none and struck out 24, and those are two of his worst outings of 2021. His ERA actually went up after both, all the way to 1.08 now.
“I don’t like to give up runs,” deGrom said. No pitcher does. But none does more about it than deGrom. Yet he gave up one four pitches into the game when Luis Urias hooked a pretty well-placed 99 mph fastball for a homer. But it was like the worst thing the Brewers could do. Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman had hit a three-run homer four batters into deGrom’s last start, and deGrom then gave up no more runs on two more hits and finished with 14 strikeouts in seven innings.
After Urias’ homer, deGrom retired 13 straight. Nine of those batters reached two strikes. They went 0-for-9 with six strikeouts. That made hitters 14-for-195 (.072) this year when deGrom reaches two strikes. Then he got ahead of Peterson 0-2 on two devilish sliders. The first five hitters deGrom had gotten ahead of 0-2 in this game he had retired — four on strikeouts — to make opponents 7-for-98 (.071) with 74 strikeouts in such situations.
He threw consecutive sliders for balls. But still, who could have imagined what would come next? DeGrom had given up two total homers in his previous 11 games. He had given up two homers in one game in just one of his previous 43 starts — again, once in his past 43 starts. So when Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto watched Peterson deposit the fifth straight slider beyond the wall in right-center …
“Give kudos to those hitters, because that is the best pitcher in the world,” Rojas said.
Yes, plaudits to them and the standing ovation of silence to deGrom. He was furious with himself, because as opposed to the fastball to Urias, he thought the slider to Peterson was awful.
“Even though it goes silent there, I am way more upset with myself in that spot,” deGrom said.
DeGrom gave up just two more singles through seven, went to even three-ball counts just twice all game and kept the Mets close when fellow All-Star Corbin Burnes was thriving for Milwaukee, near enough for Peraza’s big swing against another All-Star, Hader, to matter.
DeGrom may still pitch a few innings Sunday if the rotation-depleted Mets deem him ready and the need is steep. But the first half is essentially written for the ace of the sport. There is much to applaud. Yet shocked silence at home best screamed about who deGrom has become.
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