By Deesha Thosar
FOX Sports MLB Writer
He walked from one room to another, then stood at his locker, looked around and seemed a bit fidgety before he picked up his glove from his chair and went back on the move.
It was a nervous energy that stood out particularly because the rest of his Mets teammates were relaxed, sitting at their lockers and poring over advance reports or eating in the dining area. The difference was significant. That was just another day with another game for the Mets. For deGrom, it was the eve of his first time on a mound in 391 days. He expected to be nervous, and those sensations seemed to show up a day before the grand occasion for which we’ve been waiting.
Then it was go-time. DeGrom walked out of the dugout to a big ovation and picked up where he left off over a year ago. His first pitch since July 7, 2021 was a 99 mph fastball to Victor Robles that fell in for a strike. His third pitch of the night was a 102 mph heater. Not long after, he struck out Robles on six pitches.
The nervous energy from the day before didn’t show itself on the mound. He struck out six batters, gave up three hits and yes, proving he is human, allowed one run across 59 pitches and five innings in the Mets’ 5-1 loss against the Nationals on Tuesday night.
“It’s what I expect of him,” Mets pitching coach Jeremy Hefner said. “He’s the greatest pitcher arguably of our generation.”
This was the deGrom the Mets have known, and the deGrom the Mets expected when they supplemented the best pitcher in baseball with a three-time Cy Young award winner back in November. The Mets had a vision when they shocked the baseball world and signed Max Scherzer to a record-setting three-year, $130 million contract. No one articulated that vision better than their multi-billionaire team owner.
“Now we get to pair Max with one of the other great generational pitchers, Jacob deGrom,” Steve Cohen said in a news conference on Dec. 1. “I told you last year I wanted to win, and I talked about sustained winning and winning championships, and I mean it.”
Mets’ Jacob deGrom throws six strikeouts in his return against the Nationals
New York Mets’ Jacob deGrom threw six strikeouts, including a 102 mph fast ball against the Washington Nationals.
For a while there, that vision was beginning to look like a fantasy. DeGrom and Scherzer showcased that generational talent in spring training, pitching back-to-back in a March Grapefruit League game that only further built up expectations for the damage they could do together in the Mets rotation. But it was short-lived.
DeGrom went down at the end of March with a stress reaction on his right scapula. He was shut down from throwing for four weeks. Over the course of a judicious rehab, it became clear deGrom wouldn’t return until the Mets were well into the second half of their season.
Nine months after the Mets signed Scherzer — and in doing so, declared they would win a World Series at some point in the next three years — the organization’s vision became reality. Their 1-2 punch of Scherzer and deGrom took the stage four months after they intended, but it finally materialized and with it, brought promise. Now, it will be up to the co-aces to prove whether they were worth the wait.
“I felt good,” deGrom said after his season debut. “To get out there and pitch and be healthy, that’s the reward.”
Scherzer, in the 102-game absence of deGrom, has held up his side of the agreement in his first year in Queens. Including his outing against the Nationals on Monday, in which he struck out five and earned his seventh win of the year, Scherzer has a 2.13 ERA and 0.925 WHIP in 14 starts this season. The Mets were able to overcome Scherzer’s seven-week absence due to an oblique strain and maintain their first-place lead in the NL East.
The team’s ability to fend off the surging Atlanta Braves — all while Scherzer and deGrom were on the shelf — was a herculean effort, and one that catapulted their chances of making the playoffs for the first time in five years. But from here on out, the Mets’ probability of a long postseason run hinges on the health of deGrom and Scherzer.
“Having these two guys on the same side is awesome,” Pete Alonso said of deGrom and Scherzer. “I’m excited for what these guys can do moving down the stretch.”
There are still so many unknowns. The Mets cannot immediately commit to deGrom returning to a regular, five-day schedule following his successful season debut Tuesday. DeGrom said he felt good enough to do so, and if he does, he’s lined up to face the Braves on Sunday at Citi Field in the series finale of a critical four-game set between the division rivals.
Then there is the matter of his arm strength, and whether it can withstand the accelerating workload between now and, the Mets hope, through October. There is also the question of whether his high velocity — 16 of deGrom’s first 22 pitches on Tuesday were triple digits — will lead to another injury.
DeGrom has repeatedly said he will opt out of his contract and become a free agent this offseason. While it’s easy to see Cohen opening a blank check and giving deGrom whatever he wants, a lot has to happen between now and then. Of utmost importance to these 2022 Mets is winning the NL pennant and then the championship, and it’s difficult to imagine that goal being achieved without their homegrown ace.
For now, the Mets will try to enjoy the ride, while holding their breath that a deGrom shoulder twitch or slight wince is a routine reaction, rather than that signaling something bigger, or something worse. For now, the 1-2 punch the Mets signed for and dreamed of has finally arrived. And that’s something to revel in.
“Obviously a really good pitcher getting back out there,” Buck Showalter said. “Now the challenge is to keep him out there. It’s hard to do. You generate that type of arm speed, some can do it better than others. There’s things you have to stay on top of.”
Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets for three-and-a-half seasons as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. She never misses a Rafael Nadal match, no matter what country or time zone he’s playing in (sleep can always be sacrificed for sports). Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.
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