WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Mets righthander Jacob deGrom rocked into his delivery, the same effortless motion that he perfected on his way to major-league stardom. His fastball exploded from his hand, zipping past the late swing of the Astros’ Josh Reddick for strike three.
As deGrom stalked around the mound, he caught a glance at a familiar number on the scoreboard, one that triggered a wave of satisfaction that he kept with him even after the game. In the dugout, manager Terry Collins saw it, too: 97 mph.
So he leaned in to talk with pitching coach Dan Warthen. “Well,” the manager said, “this is a little special today.”
At the end of the Mets’ 3-1 win over the Astros on Saturday, it was hard to know who was more in need of some vintage deGrom.
Was it deGrom, who constantly was pestered by questions a year ago about his sagging velocity? Was it the Mets, who are in the middle of a critical stretch in which they will see how their best pitchers have bounced back from surgery?
Either way, deGrom, 28, tossed two perfect innings in his Grapefruit League debut, an encouraging sign of his physical state at the start of a new season.
“I was a little nervous,” said deGrom, who finished with two strikeouts. “I get nervous before every start in the season, but normally not that much in spring training. But I think just getting out there and having the adrenaline going like in a game for the first time since surgery, I was a little nervous. I’m glad that I got out there and was able to throw the ball where I wanted to.”
From the deliberate walk to the mound to the flowing mane beneath his cap, there was no mistaking deGrom’s return. He had not pitched since September, when his aching right elbow sent him for surgery to address a nerve issue. It was a fitting end to a season that began with a bothersome lat injury and a fastball that lacked life.
That deGrom still went 7-8 with a 3.04 ERA in 24 starts only reaffirmed his uncanny ability to produce, even when little went right.
“It was a constant mental thing of ‘what am I doing now?’ ” said deGrom, recounting the various roadblocks he was forced to encounter.
In spring training last year, his velocity readings produced concerns about his health, another reminder of the fretting that comes with high-end pitching. Speculation raged about whether the Mets’ deep playoff run in 2015 had taken its toll.
It would be weeks until deGrom’s heater came back to life. After averaging 94.9 mph in 2015, he dipped to 93.4 mph in 2016. He refused to pin the difference on his physical issues. Even now, he refuses to say that injuries were the cause.
“Seriously, that was the question every day I threw,” deGrom said. “ ‘What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you throwing hard?’ I don’t know. You say it doesn’t get to you, but if somebody asks you something enough, you’re thinking about it. But I wasn’t worried about that this year. All I wanted to be was healthy coming into spring, and I definitely feel a lot better than I did last year at this time.”
As soon as he could throw after surgery, deGrom focused on refining the smooth pitching mechanics that eluded him for much of last season.
He had fallen into a bad habit he encountered in the minors. Instead of the momentum of his body coming toward the plate in a straight line, kinks in his motion created velocity-sapping detours.
His hands separated from the ball too early, the start of a chain reaction that made a mess of his command. His left shoulder opened to the plate and his right arm dragged. Instead of getting the full force of his might behind the ball, it was wasted.
At its worst, deGrom said it took all he had to throw the ball 92 mph. And with the season in full swing, he struggled to make adjustments.
“Last year I was fighting myself and really wasn’t staying behind the ball as much as I have in the past,” he said. “I think today I did a good job with my mechanics.”
The Mets lost three members of its Opening Day starting rotation to season-ending surgery, with deGrom joining Steven Matz and Matt Harvey. Harvey will pitch for the first time since surgery on Sunday, followed by Matz on Monday. But in deGrom, the Mets got all the reassurance they needed.
“Obviously, he looks healthy,” Collins said. “He threw the ball tremendous. Again, it was really good to see him out there. It’s another piece that’s on the track back, no question.”