Jacob deGrom was the man during batting practice Wednesday, because Jacob deGrom is always the man. As the sun started falling and the shadows started creeping across the Citi Field grass, deGrom stood at shortstop, his old college position, preparing for any line drives fired his way.
From the Mets’ dugout rail, it was hard to take your eyes off the ace of aces, dormant since July 7. Frankly, it was just good to see him on a ballfield again after doctors cleared him to do what an SNY camera caught him doing a couple of hours earlier: playing catch in the outfield, perhaps the first step toward starting a mid-September game.
DeGrom ended up in left field during BP before making his way across center and then to right. He ultimately climbed over the low wall in the right-field corner and down a tunnel, presumably to avoid the reporters gathered near the dugout. As much as journalists depend on access to athletes to provide information to the fans, it was hard to blame deGrom for taking a pregame pass for three reasons:
- It’s embarrassing to effectively engage in a press conference over a development as simple as playing catch.
- It would be even more embarrassing if deGrom played along and then suffered yet another setback that ended his season.
- It’s not his responsibility to answer questions about a team collapse that had nothing to do with him (even though it had everything to do with him).
On July 7, after deGrom was done throwing seven innings of four-hit, two-run, 10-strikeout ball in Milwaukee, the Mets walked away from that victory with a 45-37 record and a four-game lead in the National League East. The Mets have since gone 16-27 while plunging into third place, 6 ¹/₂ games behind division-leader Atlanta entering Wednesday night’s game against the Giants.
Yes, an argument can be made that as a starting pitcher — even as a starting pitcher who is a generational great — deGrom cannot have such a dramatic, big-picture impact on his team because he doesn’t compete in four out of every five games.
That is a dumb argument.
Never mind that deGrom even owns the best batting average (.364) for any Met with at least 30 plate appearances this year (of course he does). When he is on the mound and on top of his craft, deGrom has a significant emotional impact on his team. When he is healthy and on the bench, that impact doesn’t completely fade to black, and you don’t have to be a Harvard-trained psychologist to figure out why.
The Mets have been a Charlie Brown franchise for a long time, and deGrom’s mere presence cuts against that loserville grain. On the bygone day that the Mets drafted deGrom in the ninth round of the 2010 draft, Lucy finally held the ball for them. For the first half of this season, the Mets could stand on baseball’s mountaintop, above the Yankees and everyone else, and shout that they had something nobody else had: the best pitcher on the planet.
Do you believe that didn’t positively affect the Mets on those days he didn’t throw?
After manager Luis Rojas announced what he called “great news for us” — an MRI exam that showed enough improvement in deGrom’s elbow inflammation to allow him to throw a baseball — I asked him about the damage his ace’s absence did to his team not just in a physical context, but in a psychological one, too.
“We’ve faced a lot of things this season, and the guys have taken it the best way,” Rojas said. “They show up to play every day with the same demeanor. I don’t think there’s any mentality, or just going negative towards a game because we thought this could’ve been Jake’s day. … Because we’ve been through a tough stretch, I don’t think the guys are going like, ‘OK, Jake’s not here.’
“It’s always good when he’s active and pitching every five days, but [when] he hasn’t been, I don’t think the guys felt sorry for themselves. … I don’t think from a mental standpoint [deGrom’s absence] hurt the guys. They showed up to play the same way every day.”
Just not half as effectively.
Rojas has to protect his players, and he can’t give them a reason to fail in a press conference answer. Later, at the end of BP, when I talked with Rojas on the field, he said he’s doing everything in his power to delete future media and fan references to a Same Old Mets mentality. Rojas is only 39, and he’s got a chance to be a very good manager in the long term.
But entering Wednesday night’s game, with a deGrom return potentially on the horizon, the Mets were still a team in free-fall. And in every way, their unraveling has been another testament to deGrom’s greatness.
Not that he needed one.