PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — The game was played in the shadow of Hollywood, but there would be no rah-rah speeches, no words of wisdom. In the mind of the man who stood alone at the center of it all, there was only desperation.
“I was just thinking to myself, ‘Hey, figure it out,’ ” Mets righthander Jacob deGrom said recently. “Nobody else really says anything. I think the guys know that you’re out there battling. They can tell you don’t have your best stuff.”
Only a handful of times in his career has deGrom been in total control on the pitcher’s mound. Game 1 of the 2015 National League Division Series was one of them. In seven shutout innings, he struck out 13 Dodgers, equaling Tom Seaver’s franchise record in a playoff game.
But that’s not the game he’ll never forget.
None of that dominance carried over to his next start, which proved to be his most memorable game — NLDS Game 5 against the Dodgers’ Zack Greinke with a trip to the NLCS at stake.
“I don’t know if we changed the game plan or if they were just on our game plan or something,” deGrom said. “But things weren’t working. I was a little more wild than I had been. But I think knowing that it was an elimination, maybe my nerves were up a little bit more. I don’t even know.”
The first inning played out like a splash of cold water to the face. The Dodgers did the dousing. They laced four straight one-out singles and pushed across two runs.
In the midst of the barrage, deGrom looked up and caught an image that would be etched into his long-term memory: stirring in the bullpen.
“I would say probably that first inning, looking down and seeing people get loose in the bullpen, and thinking, ‘Wow, this is not how I pictured this going,’ ” he said.
He threw 27 pitches in the first inning, then needed another 18 in the second.
“You know when it’s up, you know when guys are warming up,” he said. “But it’s never been on that scale of where if we don’t win this, we’re going home.”
The third inning brought more trouble — Justin Turner’s double and a walk — and more action in the bullpen. Terry Collins came to the mound, and managers usually come to take the ball. This time he merely asked for a double play, one he eventually got. Again, deGrom averted trouble.
He doesn’t remember this. But what he does recall is the other thought that wouldn’t leave his mind as the Dodgers tried to spoil the season. “We had been playing really good baseball,” deGrom said. “And I felt like we were going to win it. I don’t know why.”
From there, deGrom made an ally out of his desperation. He couldn’t have known at the time that the Mets would advance to the World Series, the culmination of a season that finally pushed the franchise back into the light. But he knew the stakes of the moment. It pushed him.
“That game was just different, though, because you’re like I have to do it right here,” deGrom said. “This is it. Do it now or you’re out of this game. I think that was kind of my mentality. That helped me get through that.”
He endured the most grueling six innings of his life, retiring 10 of the last 12 batters he faced. The Mets won, 3-2. After the game, deGrom hunched over in his chair, exhausted. But that’s not the memory he carries.
“My family was there,” he said. “Them coming down on the field, seeing them, it was just a great experience knowing that I went out there and literally left it all on the field. And then moving to the next level in the playoffs, it was a crazy experience.”