You could tell from the hitters’ reactions on Wednesday that Jacob deGrom was back. It was not just Yasiel Puig — the excitable outfielder who snapped his bat over his knee after a strikeout — but Eugenio Suarez, a different Cincinnati Reds hitter, who slapped his bat with an open palm after whiffing on a changeup.
“I was ready for that one; I know he can throw that pitch with two strikes — but he got me,” Suarez said later, by his locker at Citi Field. “His last couple of starts were not really good, but today, that’s the deGrom everybody knows. He commanded every pitch. He threw hard, good sinker, changeup and slider. Really good start for him.”
For the Mets, the result was so 2018: seven scoreless innings from deGrom, zero run support and a 1-0 defeat. But these Mets are not those Mets; the top three hitters in Wednesday’s lineup — Jeff McNeil, Pete Alonso and Robinson Cano — were not on the team at this point last season, and most nights, the offense will produce.
Until this start, for a change, deGrom had gotten exactly what he deserved. Last season, he earned the National League Cy Young Award in a landslide because he was so thoroughly dominant, with a 1.70 earned run average that did not match his 10-9 record. In his first five starts of this season, he was 2-3, winning two strong starts and losing three bad ones.
On Wednesday he allowed only three hits, two walks and a hit batter, striking out six. He was perfect for three innings, escaped a bases-loaded jam in the fourth, and finally allowed his first hit in the fifth. He baited the Reds with fastballs his first time through the order, then unleashed his changeups and sliders.
“When he’s executing his pitches like that,” catcher Tomas Nido said, “I can’t even imagine how hard it is to be in the batter’s box.”
Nido caught deGrom’s second start of the season in Miami on April 3, when he fanned 14 in seven shutout innings. In the three starts that followed, Minnesota, Atlanta and Milwaukee battered deGrom for 14 runs in 13 innings. He also missed 10 days with strep throat and elbow soreness.
The Mets — who in March gave deGrom a five-year, $137.5 million contract extension through 2023 — needed to see the real deGrom. So did he, and smoother mechanics revealed him.
Edwin Diaz has lost twice this week, allowing tiebreaking solo homers with two out in the ninth each time.CreditElsa/Getty Images
“It’s definitely a relief,” deGrom said. “Nobody wants to go out there and stink. The work in between, just going out there and trusting it, staying back over the rubber and going to home plate — to me, it’s almost like trying to walk to the catcher after I throw it versus falling off real hard.”
His biggest pitch of the game was a full-count changeup with two outs and the bases loaded in the fourth to strike out Tucker Barnhart. Nido had met deGrom on the mound just before the pitch to discuss it. DeGrom had a strong working relationship last summer with his primary catcher, the departed Devin Mesoraco, and you get the feeling Nido could serve that role now. He was promoted on Sunday when Travis d’Arnaud was designated for assignment.
“He receives the ball so well,” Manager Mickey Callaway said of Nido. “It seemed like they had a good rhythm going, and that’s one of the reasons we brought him up, because we feel like he’s going to catch some really good games. He’s super-prepared, he’s in there studying video, he knows what needs to be called. His defense is exactly what we needed.”
Callaway had said before batting practice that he wanted deGrom to change speeds more often, and that is what happened, especially in the middle innings. DeGrom said he doubted he would have had the confidence to throw the 3-2 changeup to Barnhart in his last few starts, but this time, his mechanics gave him better command.
“I was behind the baseball, through it — and when I’m like that, I can tell,” deGrom said. “Batters can tell as well. They’re not squaring up the fastball, and the off-speed is where I want it.”
Of course, the Mets would not be the Mets without some kind of crisis, and on Wednesday they placed the setup man Jeurys Familia on the injured list with shoulder soreness. Familia — who signed a three-year, $30 million deal to return to the Mets in free agency — has a 6.28 earned run average and blew the save in Tuesday’s victory.
Closer Edwin Diaz has lost twice this week, allowing tiebreaking solo homers with two out in the ninth to Jesse Winker on Monday and Jose Iglesias on Wednesday. Bullpen follies have haunted all four division contenders, which means that a critical player in the division might not even be here yet.
Craig Kimbrel — a premier closer who has still not found a free-agent offer to his liking — might wait to sign until after the June draft, when his new team would not have to forfeit a pick to get him. Assuming he resumes his career with his usual results, Kimbrel could make a major impact in the N.L. East neighborhood.
For now, though, deGrom might matter most if he reprises his role as the best and most consistent starter in the majors. The Mets will hit, and if this is what they can expect from their ace, the rotation can fall in line behind him and Noah Syndergaard.
“These two are going to get clicking,” Callaway said, “and we’re going to take off.”