WASHINGTON — Yup, he still is Jacob deGrom.
In his highly anticipated, long-awaited, much-delayed return to a major-league mound — for the first time in more than a year — deGrom mostly looked like his same old self against the Nationals. He allowed one run in five innings, striking out six and walking none in the Mets’ eventual 5-1 loss, snapping their season-high seven-game winning streak.
“I wished for a different outcome, but I’m happy to be back out there,” deGrom said.
Manager Buck Showalter added: “A lot of good things.”
Most significantly, perhaps, deGrom said he felt totally fine physically after dealing with elbow problems last year and a stress reaction in his right shoulder blade this year. That he exited after 59 pitches was not a surprise, based on his recent workload in the minors, and indeed that he got through as much of the game as he did on such a limited pitch count was a plus.
The Mets (65-38) plan for him to pitch on regular rest Sunday against Atlanta at Citi Field, according to deGrom and pitching coach Jeremy Hefner.
“Now the challenge is to keep him out there,” Showalter said. “It’s hard to do.”
The long layoff seemed not to impact deGrom’s ability or desire to throw harder than most any other starting pitcher. His fastball averaged 99.2 mph — same as 2021 — and he hit 100 mph or more 13 times.
He was electric from the very start. His first batter, Victor Robles, took a 99.3-mph fastball for strike one and swung through another 99.3-mph fastball for strike two. After Robles watched a ball — a 101.6-mph heater, deGrom’s fastest of the night and third-fastest ever — and managed to foul off a pair of pitches, deGrom got him to whiff at a slider.
“I’ve gotten to see it, but there are a lot of guys in the dugout who haven’t gotten to see him pitch, so that was pretty cool,” pitching coach Jeremy Hefner said. “The 102 and the 95-mph slider out of the shoot, that’s different. It’s different. You don’t see that every day. And we get a front-row seat to it, so it’s pretty special.”
Of the three hits deGrom allowed two came back-to-back in the bottom of the fourth and actually produced a run. Robles singled firmly on a grounder through the left side of the infield. He stole second and scored on Luis Garcia’s double to right-center.
DeGrom rebounded to retire his final six batters.
“There was a slider I didn’t execute and a fastball I didn’t execute,” deGrom sad. “That’s going to be part of this, not being out there in that long and getting a good feel for the stuff. But there in the fifth I was able to settle back down and get everything back down.”
All that came against a Washington lineup that was utterly depleted, even more so than normal — but still managed to hit three home runs off relievers Stephen Nogosek and Yoan Lopez in the sixth and seventh innings. The Nationals (36-69) fully steered into their rebuild Tuesday by trading 23-year-old superstar outfielder Juan Soto, as well outfielder Josh Bell, far and away their top two hitters, to the Padres before the trade deadline.
That meant a major-league debut for a first baseman named Joey Meneses, who appeared astonished at the volume of Soto-seeking media members in the Nationals’ clubhouse before the game (and later homered for his first career hit after a decade in the minors). Rightfielder Josh Palacios made his season debut.
“I was actually looking forward to facing [Soto],” deGrom said. “You want to face the best, and he’s one of the best hitters in the game. “
The game nonetheless registered as a major-league contest, which for deGrom was an accomplishment.
DeGrom hadn’t pitched since July 7, 2021, when he had a 1.08 ERA. His troublesome elbow wound up sidelining him the entire second half as the Mets’ once-promising season fell apart. Upon arriving at spring training, deGrom deemed himself healthy, which appeared to be true briefly. But when he felt discomfort in his shoulder about a week before Opening Day, a round of medical imaging revealed the injury that deGrom described as “kind of out of nowhere.”
“It’s been a long time,” he said. “So to be back out there was definitely rewarding."