While Matt Harvey was off recovering from Tommy John surgery last season, Jacob deGrom, with his leonine mane of brown hair, stepped in and showed he fit the profile of stopper on his way to winning National League Rookie of the Year honors.
After a so-so start this season that had him working on mechanical issues, deGrom receded into Harvey's shadow again.
But when the Mets found themselves in need of a stopper after two blowout losses to the Cardinals, deGrom provided it in spectacular fashion Thursday afternoon at Citi Field. He gave up a single to Matt Carpenter, the second batter he faced, and then got 23 straight outs, striking out 11 in a 5-0 Mets victory.
The last Mets pitcher to retire 23 consecutive batters was Anthony Young on July 7, 1993. DeGrom (5-4) also improved to 10-4 with a 1.50 ERA in 16 career starts at Citi Field, and his home ERA is the lowest in Major League Baseball (minimum 140 innings pitched) in the past two seasons, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
DeGrom agreed it was his best-ever performance, and he certainly understood its importance. "I wanted to go out today and put us in a position to win, and that happened,'' he said with a big smile. "That's a great ballclub over there, a great lineup, and to have that happen like that against them is a good feeling.''
John Mayberry Jr.'s RBI single in the fourth was all the run support deGrom needed, but Lucas Duda provided a cushion with a solo home run in the sixth and a three-run shot in the eighth.
Jeurys Familia finished up in the ninth, surrendering a two-out single before fanning Carpenter to end the game.
Although deGrom won his previous start with the help of a 10-run inning, it was his performance against St. Louis that reinforced the work he's been doing on his mechanics with pitching coach Dan Warthen.
"I had been watching video on my own, trying to look at where I was at last year and trying to get back there,'' deGrom said. "Doing that and working with Dan between starts. Today was the best mechanically I've been. [It was] just the way my hands were moving. They were kind of slow, and getting them down a little quicker helps me get on top of the ball, which helps the sinker and the slider and everything.''
Despite giving up the first-inning single to Carpenter, deGrom set the tone early by recording strikeouts on the first five Cardinals outs before getting a ground ball to end the second inning. But by that time, deGrom had thrown 40 pitches, so he made a conscious decision to pitch to earlier contact to stay in the game longer.
In his final six innings, deGrom had six more strikeouts, but he matched his career high of eight full innings. He had a five-pitch eighth, the only inning he didn't record a strikeout.
"You definitely get in a groove,'' deGrom said. "You start getting a lot of people out in a row, you want to get the ball back and go right after the next guy.''
Nobody was happier to see deGrom regain last season's form than manager Terry Collins. "Last year, he learned how to strike people out," he said. "He has the ability to move the ball around the strike zone. He was outstanding today.''