BOSTON — In his last start of a life-changing junior year at Stetson, Jacob deGrom hit his only college home run. It came against the top pitcher in his team’s small conference, a lefthander who weeks later was a first-round pick and years later a perennial All-Star, the guy he’ll face Sunday in the Mets’ series finale with the Red Sox: Chris Sale.
The scene: May 26, 2010. Nashville, Tennessee. Opening round of the Atlantic Sun Tournament. DeGrom, a light-hitting shortstop who converted to pitching (and became a pro prospect) that spring, got the ball opposite Sale and Florida Gulf Coast.
In the top of the second, on a 1-and-0 count, Sale gave deGrom a pitch that the latter remembers as a “fastball that was a little up.”
“I swung hard and happened to hit it,” deGrom said. “I was definitely surprised. The guy ended up going in the first round, the talk was he was going in the first round, he pitched in the big leagues that year — and somehow, left-on-left, I got lucky.”
DeGrom wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
“I think everybody was surprised,” said Pete Dunn, Stetson’s since-retired longtime head coach. “Any time anybody took Sale deep, you were surprised.”
DeGrom actually faced Sale twice in 2010 — once in March, deGrom’s second start after opening the season as Stetson’s closer, and in May. Sale outpitched deGrom both times.
DeGrom, who embraces matching up with another team’s best pitcher, admits he didn’t appreciate it as much then. “I was so new to pitching and didn’t have that many plus pitches,” he said. “I was trying to figure it out while I was out there.”
On Sunday, deGrom will get another shot at it. He’ll put his best-in-the-majors 1.71 ERA on the line against the highest-scoring offense in baseball as he nears the end of his Cy Young-caliber season. Sale, who has a 1.96 ERA and had his case for the American League Cy Young Award weakened by second-half shoulder issues, still is stretching out in advance of the postseason, having gone one inning (26 pitches) his last time out.
For Mets manager Mickey Callaway, a former pitcher and pitching coach, a matchup of two of the game’s best is a reason to be a tad more excited for Sunday. Red Sox manager Alex Cora called deGrom “one of the best” and “always on, stuff-wise.”
“I was hoping it would rain one more day,” Cora said, half-joking. “He’s been amazing. Forget the record. Look at the real numbers. It’s impressive.”
Said Callaway: “They’re both really special pitchers. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of anxiety in both teams’ hitters tomorrow when they have to go to the plate, because that’s two of the best pitchers in the game going at each other.”
Few could have predicted this matchup of lanky, hard-throwing titans when deGrom took Sale deep eight years ago.
“I didn’t have [deGrom] on the mound till his junior year of college,” Dunn said, laughing. “That shows you how smart a coach I am.
“I don’t think anybody at that point would have looked that far into their crystal balls and see what they’ve become.”
TALE OF THE TAPE
R Throws L
6-4 Height 6-6
30 Age 29
8-9 Record 12-4
1.71 ERA 1.96
239 Strikeouts 221
0.95 WHIP 0.85