David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
The first step toward solving a problem is admitting there is one, and the Mets were at that stage with Jacob deGrom leading up to last night's start against the Orioles at Citi Field. We'd put the level of concern somewhere around moderate, but deGrom wearing a 7.84 ERA in two previous starts had the makings of a very disturbing trend. Something had to change, and Wednesday night, deGrom did enough to assure the Mets he was back on point.
Or getting there. At times, this was a bit of a grind for deGrom, who still didn't allow an extra-base hit (six singles) and struck out a season-high nine over seven innings in the Mets' 5-1 victory. Only for a talent like deGrom could that be considered merely a step in the right direction rather than reaching the goal.
And that's how the Mets view him, the reigning Rookie of the Year who should be pushing someday for Cy Young contention. On this staff, maybe he's a No. 1-B starter, bowing to Bartolo Colon on experience and Matt Harvey on hype. But when deGrom is at his best -- which the Mets anticipate after what they hope was just a recent blip -- he shouldn't take a back seat to anyone.
That takes some tinkering, and deGrom now finds himself in the same cat-and-mouse game that everyone must play at this level. Predictability is death up here, and deGrom was trending poorly in his previous two starts, with opponents raking him for a .902 OPS.
"People have seen him now," Collins said. "So he continues to make adjustments, which we know he's very capable of doing. Tonight we needed him, he stepped up and got big outs for us."
Part of that was figuring out how to neutralize lefthanded hitters, whose OPS was at .964 coming in -- up from .639 a year ago. The solution? Going more to his offspeed pitches, the curveball and changeup, which deGrom apparently had lost faith in to some degree. But during a frantic fifth inning, when deGrom barely protected a 3-1 lead, it seemed he relied on some luck, too.
Two lefties hurt him that inning, with pinch hitter Travis Snyder poking an 89-mph slider into rightfield, and two batters later, Jimmy Paredes slashed an 81-mph curve for an RBI single. Kevin Plawecki said later they maybe got a little too "breaking-pitch happy" in those spots, but deGrom fought back.
After Adam Jones drew a two-out walk to load the bases, that brought up another lefty, the slugger Chris Davis, who deGrom already had whiffed twice. He fell behind 2-and-0, but finally got Davis to wave at an 89-mph slider. One pitch away from forcing in a run, deGrom then got a swinging strike on a 94-mph fastball and fanned him with a 90-mph slider.
"Not a very good one," deGrom said. "But it worked."
From there, deGrom retired six of seven, and left to a nice ovation. With the organization's pitching depth, the Mets can afford to ride out whatever turbulence surfaces in their rotation. A few shaky starts by deGrom is nothing the rest of the staff can't absorb for a little while.
But even with more young talent like Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz waiting their turns at Triple-A Las Vegas, the Mets are counting on deGrom to be part of a first-place foundation. This season also has reminded us there are no guarantees. Colon is cruising, but he turns 42 in two weeks, so who knows how long he can keep this up? As for Harvey, he hasn't been slowed a bit by his Tommy John past. But it's still early, and the Mets are trying to space out his workload on the fly.
Which is why Wednesday night was so important for deGrom and the Mets. A correction of sorts. If not a problem solved.