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Mets, Jacob deGrom made all the right moves in shift from shortstop to the mound

New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom (48)

New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom (48) is all smiles after he is introduced during Game 1 of the NLCS against the Chicago Cubs at Citi Field on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. Credit: Jim McIsaac

This was never a part of the plan. Jacob deGrom, the most dominant pitcher in baseball this postseason, never dreamed as a kid that his career would take him here, never envisioned that one day he would be a starting pitcher in the World Series.

Way back before the crazy long hair and the perfectly insane 3-0 October, deGrom was a clean-cut country kid who drove a jacked-up pickup truck and seemed to want nothing more than to play shortstop for his local college baseball team and throw a few innings of relief when needed.

For two years, he did exactly that. But during his junior season at Stetson University in Central Florida, the team ran into a problem: The starting pitchers were terrible.

"Our best arm was sitting out there at shortstop,'' Stetson coach Pete Dunn recalled in a phone interview. "I had to make him my Friday night starter. How'd he take it? I ain't going to lie to you. He was not doing backflips of joy when we told him.''

DeGrom agreed to move to the mound for the sake of the team. And a little more than five years later, Mets fans should write Dunn a big thank- you note.

DeGrom enters his World Series Game 2 start on the precipice of history. A win over the Royals would make the 6-4 righthander the first major-league pitcher to win four road games in a single postseason. A victory also would make him the first Mets pitcher to win four consecutive postseason starts. As it stands, he is the only Mets pitcher to go 3-0 in a single postseason.

His playoff numbers are staggering. He has a 1.80 ERA and has struck out 27 batters in 20 innings. What's more, he has found multiple ways to win.

DeGrom set a high bar for the Mets' young pitching staff when he opened the playoffs by outdueling Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw in Game 1 of the NLDS in Los Angeles. But equally impressive was the way he was able to shake off early-inning struggles in his next two games against the Dodgers and the Cubs and hold on.

"It really is amazing to watch,'' Dunn said. "I'd like to tell you that I projected all this, but I'm not that smart of a guy. Nobody could have foreseen this.''

Dunn and others who knew deGrom before the Mets selected him in the ninth round of the 2010 draft say the one thing that hasn't surprised them about him is the way he seems to flourish in the intense pressure of the postseason.

DeGrom was raised in DeLeon Springs, a Central Florida town with one gas station, one hardware store and no stoplights. His father, Tony, was an AT&T lineman and his mother, Tammy, was a customer service rep for a credit card rewards program.

He has two older sisters. One of them, Jessica, a hair stylist, is the only one he lets cut his hair, which just might explain a lot, given that she lives in Florida.

Last November, he married Stacey, a "local girl'' he met at a rodeo right after high school. The two live modestly in a one-bedroom apartment on New York's Upper East Side during baseball season and have a house near his parents in Florida in the offseason.

Those who know the family describe them as "grounded'' and "down to earth.'' This, more than anything, might be the reason deGrom hasn't seemed fazed by suddenly being thrust into big-pressure situations.

Rick Hall, who coached deGrom's American Legion team, said that every time he watches deGrom step onto a big stage, he finds himself getting nervous for him. Then he realizes there is no reason to feel that way.

"He has this internal intensity, but he doesn't display it outwardly,'' Hall said. "He just seems to block it all out. I remember his first start in the majors against the Yankees. I was watching him and I realized, 'He doesn't realize the magnitude of this.' He was oblivious.

"When you talk about athletes getting into a zone, that's him. He just seems so happy-go-lucky, but he's also very, very intense in the moment.''

Mets manager Terry Collins said deGrom's happy-go-lucky demeanor is deceiving.

"The laid-back attitude he portrays, this kid is a competitor,'' Collins said. "He really, really competes.''

Omar Minaya, the Mets' general manager in 2010, said last week that deGrom's mental makeup is one reason the Mets were willing to take a chance on him at the end of his junior year although he had been a starting pitcher for less than a year.

Florida scouts generally begin the season paying a lot of attention to the college kids but then move on to the high schools. Because of that, deGrom initially flew under the radar when he moved into the starting rotation. Several Mets scouts, however, had liked what they saw from him when he was pitching in relief. They urged Steve Barningham, the Mets' Southeast scouting regional supervisor, to take a hard look at him.

"I remember the ball just jumped out of his hand,'' Barningham said. "It has a natural life . . . These type of guys who are late to pitching are never easy, but we were sold on his body and his athleticism. We felt there was something different about him. He had a presence, even when he was at shortstop.

"More or less, he's one of these guys you take because the ceiling is out of this world and the floor is pretty high because of the athleticism.''

As the Mets begin this World Series Tuesday night, deGrom's ceiling does seem to be sky-high. Since the Mets swept the Cubs, he and his teammates have been the toast of the town. DeGrom has appeared on "Jimmy Kimmel Live," a Long Island deli named a sandwich after him and an online costume company has been giving away free deGrom wigs for kids to wear on Halloween.

No, this is not what deGrom ever imagined or anyone who knew him growing up ever imagined. Said Dunn: "It's been crazy, but a nice crazy. I can't wait to see him pitch.''


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