The only thing Jacob deGrom was found guilty of Monday was being human.
As the first pitcher subjected to MLB’s mandatory sticky-substance checks because of the 5:10 p.m. start to the Mets’ doubleheader, deGrom breezed through the slightly awkward, almost comical procedures — one at the end of the first inning and again to conclude the fifth.
The umpiring crew failed to discover anything on his person — examining his glove and hat and even having deGrom unbuckle his belt — while the Citi Field crowd booed loudly.
It was a surreal scene, having a two-time Cy Young Award winner and the game’s most electrifying mound presence pulled over and frisked like someone driving erratically on the LIE.
But that’s a baseball problem. The Mets’ primary concern Monday was the health of their ace and what measures are necessary going forward to make sure deGrom stays on turn — or as close as possible — for the remainder of this season.
Some of those tactics were on display during their 4-2 victory over Atlanta in Game 1, a victory propelled by deGrom’s solid performance but one that fell tantalizingly short of rubber-stamping a clean bill of health for the immediate future.
Looking at the numbers, deGrom again mostly resembled his dominant self. He allowed only one hit in five innings — Kevan Smith’s high, seemingly catchable fly ball that dropped at the warning track between Albert Almora Jr. and Dominic Smith in the fifth — and struck out six as he further trimmed his ERA to 0.50. His four-seam fastball maxed out at 101 mph, with a 99.8 average (a few ticks above his season mark of 99.2), though his slider slipped to 90.8, a bit below his typical 91.6 average.
During the first four innings, everyone was thinking their usual no-hit thoughts about deGrom, even if this one wouldn’t have been official anyway because it was only a seven-inning game. But in the Mets’ dugout, the clock already was ticking. The fear of pushing deGrom a pitch too far is palpable among the club’s decision-makers, and for good reason. After three minor-but-scary injuries involving worrisome body parts, are they ever going to feel totally comfortable going full throttle with deGrom before October?
In this case, deGrom was coming off a three-inning, 51-pitch start cut short by right shoulder soreness, so this could be characterized as yet another audition despite a clean MRI and what he described as a regular work week. This was his eighth start since an April 23 shutout, and he’s averaged just over five innings/72 pitches during that span, with health the driving factor. Also, the most encouraging takeaway from Monday was no pain in the previous problem areas: the shoulder, flexor tendon or right lat muscle.
"I felt good," deGrom said. "I think that’s why we decided at that 70-pitch mark to say that was enough. Didn’t want to overdo it. I do not like coming out of baseball games, and hopefully that last one [June 16] was the last time this year. So I thought it was the right move there."
But would the Mets have reconsidered if Smith’s fly ball had been caught?
"I don’t know," manager Luis Rojas said. "I can’t tell you that. Maybe it would have been a different conversation. The health, or his protection, is more important probably than a special game at this point, right? Especially with the things that have happened already this season."
We’ll answer for Rojas. DeGrom had to be coming out regardless. As much as we disagree with MLB’s policy of not giving official "no-hitter" status to these doubleheader games, what did deGrom really have at stake here?Monday’s only mission was leaving a game on his own terms, and deGrom appeared to accomplish it, even if that required reining him in at the plate during his only at-bat.
The Braves intentionally walked Tomas Nido with two outs to face deGrom, fully expecting him not to swing, based on his recent injury history. Initially, deGrom attempted to bunt, but when both runners wound up in scoring position, he did manage a half-hearted swing, popping up to centerfield.
As great as deGrom has been offensively, hitting .423 and driving in more runs (six) than earned runs he’s allowed (four), that’s a distant second to what the Mets count on him to deliver from the mound.
DeGrom himself believes he "aggravated" the shoulder swinging the bat, which is all the evidence the Mets need for him to dial it way back in the box. "I was just trying to slap the ball — not take a crazy swing," he said. "I was just trying to be smart."
That’s the Mets’ strategy with deGrom: better safe than sorry. And for all of his supernatural pitching prowess, only the physical limitations of deGrom’s body appear capable of stopping him.