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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

In shortened season, Mets must handle Jacob deGrom's injury correctly

Jacob deGrom #48 of the Mets pitches during

Jacob deGrom #48 of the Mets pitches during a simulated game at Citi Field on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. Credit: Jim McIsaac

There is no such thing as an overreaction when it comes to the health of Jacob deGrom. Paper cut, razor burn, a brain freeze from drinking a Slurpee too fast.

Order up whatever is necessary. CT scan, X-rays, an MRI. Rustle up the whole medical staff to study him with a magnifying glass.

And when deGrom exits a scrimmage game, as he did Tuesday night after the first inning, with a frustrated look on his face, we’re sounding the sirens as if the entire Mets’ season is sinking.

Because that’s what it felt like for about 20 hours, as deGrom was listed as dealing with “back-muscle tightness” and everyone was holding their breath for the MRI results. Shortly after 3 p.m., however, we decided to temporarily switch off Flushing’s Emergency Broadcast System, due to a source informing us that deGrom’s MRI did not reveal anything “concerning” and the team’s ace remained day-to-day.

Does that mean the crisis has passed? Hardly. Since I’ve spent more time around the Mets than my immediate family during most of the past two decades, and knowing them as we do, the default position in these situations always leans toward alarmist. We’ve all witnessed a forearm ache somehow morph into Tommy John surgery or a tired shoulder become a season-ending rotator-cuff repair.

Health-care hijinks has been as much a part of the Flushing landscape as chop-shops and jet exhaust. But as far as deGrom is concerned, maybe it’s somewhat encouraging that he’s experienced this back-muscle issue before. Twice, actually.

Rarely are pre-existing conditions a good thing. Although in this case, if you remember back to 2018, when deGrom was delayed in spring training by a similar back problem, he turned out OK. DeGrom’s prep work got sidetracked just enough to prevent him from making the Opening Day start -- understudy Noah Syndergaard struck out 10 to beat the Cardinals that afternoon -- but the rest was magical.

Once the pain had evaporated, deGrom went on to make 32 starts, pitch 217 innings, craft a 1.70 ERA and win the first of his back-to-back Cy Young awards. What bothered him most that season -- other than a hyperextended elbow in early May -- was the nightly headache of seeing his brilliant efforts swirl down the drain from lack of run support. Finishing that year with a 10-9 record was enough to make anyone sick. But over time, deGrom apparently developed an immunity to that aggravation, because it helped him stay dominant again the following season, when an 11-8 mark didn’t stop him from the second Cy.

It’s too early to tell what deGrom’s back-tightness history means for this whack-a-do 2020 sprint. Never before have players plowed through a month of spring training, stopped for four months, then rushed through an abbreviated three-week summer camp to ready themselves for a 60-game regular season. And when you factor in baseball’s obsession with meticulous routines and long, drawn-out preparation, there is potential for serious breakage among the players while adjusting to this new normal.

Which leads us to the Mets’ current evaluation of deGrom and how they should handle him with only nine days left before the July 24 opener against the Braves at Citi Field. On Tuesday night, in a full-pinstripes dress rehearsal, deGrom struck out Brandon Nimmo and J.D. Davis before his premature exit.

“I didn’t notice anything,” manager Luis Rojas said Wednesday. “I think he touched three digits in [radar-gun] readings during the inning.”

Rojas went on to say he didn’t realize deGrom was out until the ace was missing from his usual seat in the dugout. He also said he didn’t speak to deGrom either that night or the following morning at Citi Field. If I were the Mets’ manager, I’d probably want to check on my two-time Cy Young winner in some fashion: text, email, Tik Tok, whatever. But the rookie skipper sounded content to leave it to the team’s performance staff, which will now have to determine when deGrom can pitch again.

He was previously scheduled to start Sunday’s exhibition game against the Yankees, a tune-up that would then put him in line for Friday’s opener. But that now could be in jeopardy, especially if deGrom requires some kind of shot to calm down any lingering inflammation. Playing only 37% of a normal schedule this season, every game is nearly three times more important than usual, so sitting deGrom for any of them is a significant blow. But the possibility of turning a relatively minor back issue into a bigger problem that could swallow half the season is going to require some hefty risk-benefit analysis.

“There's some things that happen in this game that get in the way of any plan that you may have, but it's definitely something to take in to consideration,” Rojas said. “Injuries are going to play a big part in the short season like this.”

History suggests deGrom may need a little time to get totally right again, before pursuing a Cy three-peat. The Mets just have to be smart (and patient) enough to give it to him.

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