Everything about this whirlwind week felt strange for Jacob deGrom. Not bad, of course. Just different.
There was the all-day negotiating session, with the 7-Eleven taco break personally catered by Brodie Van Wagenen, on Monday in Sarasota. Next was the physical back in New York, followed by Wednesday’s Pentagon City presser to announce his five-year, $137.5 million extension.
And then it was the Opening Day start, the first of deGrom’s career, at Nationals Park against Max Scherzer, the guy he beat for last year’s Cy Young Award.
“I was really nervous,” deGrom said after Thursday’s 2-0 victory over the Nationals. “Once I get out there, I’m OK. But it’s Opening Day. You want to go out there and establish the strike zone and start the season with a win, so there was some pressure on me.”
Before long, however, deGrom found himself in all-too-familiar territory: protecting a one-run lead with every fiber of his being. Robinson Cano’s two-out homer off Scherzer in the first inning gave deGrom a lead before he even stepped on the mound, and just like last season, that would be it in terms of offensive support.
So all deGrom did was supply six scoreless innings, navigating his way through five hits worth of traffic — four of them singles. He struck out 10 and walked one.
This marked his 30th consecutive start allowing three or fewer runs, moving past the Phillies’ Jake Arrieta for the longest streak in MLB history. He also jumped Arrieta with his 25th straight quality start, tying Eddie Cicotte (1916-17) for second place all-time and moving within one of Bob Gibson, who had 26 stretched over the 1967 and 1968 seasons.
Best of all, it was victory No. 1.
One start, one win. That’s a decent rate of return for deGrom, who needed 32 starts to get to 10 last season despite a 1.70 ERA and 269 strikeouts (in 217 innings), with the strikeout figure second only to Scherzer.
The Nationals ace punched out 12 in taking Thursday’s loss. He allowed two hits: the Cano homer and a two-out single in the fourth by his former catcher, Wilson Ramos.
Incredibly, this still might have been something less than top-shelf deGrom, possibly because of some extra nerves. But he dialed up the A-plus stuff when needed.
One spot sticks out above the rest: the game-turning duel with the Nationals’ 20-year-old slugging prodigy, Juan Soto.
Things got hairy for deGrom in the sixth after a leadoff single by Trea Turner, who stole second with none out and the scary part of the order coming up. So with the speedy Turner haunting him from behind the mound, deGrom got Anthony Rendon on a groundout — a temporary reprieve before Turner stole third.
So with the tying run 90 feet away, deGrom battled back and forth with Soto — two balls, two called strikes, then a 92-mph slider that put the count full. Everyone knew what was supposed to happen next.
“I was 100 percent sure he was waiting for a fastball,” said Ramos, who signaled for a changeup.
Mickey Callaway, watching from the dugout, thought the same: changeup, definitely.
“I kind of figured he was going to throw it,” Callaway said. “He had him sped up. It was the perfect time to do it.”
The manager read deGrom’s mind, and the Mets’ ace delivered the mother of all changeups, a twisting, diving, 88-mph dead fish that ran away from Soto’s bat like a bratty 5-year-old from his nanny. Soto had to know he was a goner the moment his brain made the choice, and when he touched nothing but air, he hopped in frustration, holding himself back from slamming the bat.
“That was one of the filthiest pitches I’ve ever seen,” Callaway said. “You just can’t lay off of it. It drops a foot and it looks just like a strike coming in until the last second, and then it falls off the table. Just an unbelievably executed pitch in a huge situation — against a great hitter.”
Being great was one of the few normal things about deGrom’s week. But even he had to acknowledge that was a special pitch, and certainly his best of the day.
“I knew I needed to throw a strike,” deGrom said. “It probably didn’t end up a strike, but it started out looking like one.”
Still a magician, as if there were any doubt. Just richer, and looking like one of the best investments the Mets have ever made.
Jacob deGrom didn’t last as long as Max Scherzer on Opening Day, but he was stingier. Their pitching lines:
IP H ER BB K PC/ST
deGrom 6 5 0 1 10 93/59
Scherzer 7 2⁄3 2 2 3 12 109/76