David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
LOS ANGELES - After six months, 30 starts and 191 innings, Jacob deGrom did more than overpower the Dodgers in National League Division Series Game 1 Friday night. The lanky righthander proved that maybe the Mets knew what they were doing all along.
We're talking about the team's obsessive and occasionally fumbled handling of its starting rotation, an elite group that some believed was too tightly controlled at times. Throughout the regular season, the term "innings limits" was as much a part of the Mets' daily existence as playing catch.
Every starter's name came with an asterisk and a running tally, as if paying for each start with a debit card. As a result, each time one took the mound, a clock was ticking, first with a pitch count and later an innings total.
So we kept projecting how many innings were left, then starts, and finally what that would mean for the playoffs. All those numbers created a sense of overheated concern, and we admit that was us punching away on our pocket calculators.
The Mets promised that the dialing-back was to save bullets for October, even before they had built an airtight lead over the Nationals. And with three post-Tommy John veterans in their rotation -- deGrom, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz -- protecting those surgically repaired elbows was critical.
Noah Syndergaard, Saturday night's Game 2 starter, was more a precautionary case, and the Mets monitored his innings according to their standard protocol for young pitchers: a 30-inning jump in each subsequent season.
The goal was to get all of them to the NLDS in prime condition, and after what deGrom did Friday night to the Dodgers, the Mets have reason to set the bar pretty high.
"As hard as it was, we feel great about it," Terry Collins said before Game 2 at Chavez Ravine. "Our pitching guys did an outstanding job. Was it easy? No. Like anybody, I wanted to run our five guys out there on a consistent basis. But we couldn't do it. We were in a situation where we had to deal with workloads."
The reward came Friday night, and the Mets are hoping it continues for the rest of the rotation as long as this playoff run lasts.
It wasn't just that deGrom was at his lethal best, rifling fastballs from 97 to 99 mph and beating the Dodgers with that ridiculous velocity. He never seemed to tire -- even through seven innings and 121 pitches, one short of his career high.
"He was the same," catcher Travis d'Arnaud said Saturday. "His first pitch was 97. His last pitch was 97. Didn't change."
Unlike the others, deGrom had a longer leash during the regular season and stayed within the margins by vaulting from 1781/3 innings last year to 191. He would have sailed past 200, however, if the Mets hadn't gone to a six-man rotation at three different points and skipped him once in September. Looking back, that was a wise decision.
From Aug. 24 to Sept. 15, deGrom appeared to be fading badly. During that five-start stretch, he went 2-3 with a 6.41 ERA. The opposition hit him at a .330 clip with an .893 OPS, which was more than 300 points higher (.590) than his career mark. To the Mets, deGrom clearly was fatigued.
But they had to be more worried about his ability to bounce back. This was their Game 1 starter, and if deGrom was spent, their playoff chances would be running on fumes, too.
Turns out it was nothing a smart timeout couldn't fix, and deGrom was breathing fire in striking out 13 Friday.
The key for the Mets' young guns, obviously, is that extreme heat. And being only human, the fuel for it is in limited supply. The September back-and-forth over Harvey's innings limit mushroomed into a public-relations nightmare for the Mets, and we'll see what effect it actually has when he pitches Monday's Game 3.
But next in line was Syndergaard, whom the Mets benched for the first 12 days of September. He returned to finish with a 2.93 ERA in his last four starts, striking out 37 and walking two in 272/3 innings. Opponents batted .163 against him. That's the Noah the Mets wanted to bottle up for Game 3 against the Dodgers.
"We think we're in good shape," Collins said. "That's no guarantee he's going to go out and have a great night, but we like where we stand."