Adding to the October vibes of the series between the first-place Cubs and first-place Mets this week are the probable pitchers for the hosts: Taijuan Walker on Tuesday, Jacob deGrom on Wednesday and Marcus Stroman on Thursday.
That trio has been tremendous, buoying the Mets through this stretch in which they still are missing half of their starting lineup, among other important players, and have endured iffy contributions from back-end starters David Peterson and Joey Lucchesi.
In 34 starts, deGrom (first in the majors with a 0.56 ERA), Walker (seventh, 2.07) and Stroman (15th, 2.33) have combined for a 1.69 ERA. Each is vastly outperforming his career norms.
Those numbers are incredible. What is a realistic expectation the rest of the season?
"It’s realistic to expect this from these three," pitching coach Jeremy Hefner said Monday. "Those are reasonable expectations given their mental toughness and also what they can throw at any given time."
The looming question — for the Mets and every other team — involves pitchers’ inning totals and how arms will react a year removed from the pandemic-shortened 60-game season.
DeGrom, who already has dealt with several minor injuries, is at 64 innings, four shy of his 2020 mark. Walker in his next start could match his innings total from the past three seasons combined. Stroman didn’t pitch at all last year.
So far, it hasn’t been an issue. With four months to go — longer if the Mets play in the postseason like they expect — it might become one.
"It’s definitely at the forefront of our minds," Hefner said. "Mindfulness and constant communication of how they’re feeling about certain things, that’s about the only thing we can do. Just because it’s so unprecedented."
Of this threesome, Walker is perhaps the biggest surprise, a mid-February addition on a two-year, $20 million contract (with a player option for a third season).
From afar, Hefner long had been a fan of Walker, a former big-time prospect for the Mariners who has been limited by injuries and more figurative growing pains throughout his major-league career.
Now in his ninth season, Walker seems to have figured it out. Hefner said changes to Walker’s pitch usage — he is throwing his four-seam fastball less and sinker more — and workout routine have helped.
"I always felt like there was a bit of untapped potential in him," Hefner said. "He seemed really raw. It’s almost like a defensive end throwing a baseball. A really big guy (6-4, 235 pounds)."
Hefner cited Stroman’s split-changeup, a spring-training experiment that became a sixth pitch for him, as a reason for his significant step forward. Stroman entered the year with a career 3.76 ERA.
"He just has a really good understanding of what he wants to do," Hefner said. "He’s very confident that if he executes his pitch, no one can hit him. That’s been mostly true."
And then there is deGrom. Although he left his most recent start early because of right flexor tendinitis in his elbow, he threw his bullpen session as scheduled Monday and remains on track to start Wednesday.
His search for a third NL Cy Young Award in four years continues apace.
"The superlatives are gone," Hefner said. "He’s just special. You can’t really compare him to anyone. What he does on the mound — maybe we don’t ever see something like that again in our generation. I’m just grateful. That’s what I keep coming back to. And with Stro and Taijuan and the rest of our guys. I’m just grateful I get to be here. Grateful I get to spend my days with them and watch them work and help them grow."
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