When is nothing, something? Evidently, in the case of Jacob deGrom, whose MRI came back clean, without any signs of structural damage, but the Mets still had reason enough to officially place him on the 10-day injured list before Tuesday night’s game against the Orioles.
"There’s nothing going on in there -- no inflammation, no sprain, nothing," manager Luis Rojas said. "But the plan right now is to treat it because it’s tightness and to make sure that when he’s throwing there’s nothing out of whack."
This was an obvious call for the Mets, and neither the team nor deGrom could offer anything definitive as to when deGrom might be ready to return to the rotation. Having arguably the planet’s best pitcher floating in limbo is not the most comforting situation to be in, but deGrom sounded relieved he stopped throwing Sunday after those two warmup pitches for the sixth inning. Who knows what the "right side tightness" could have turned into if he hadn’t?
"I just wasn’t where I needed to be," deGrom said Tuesday. "It got aggravated and I didn’t want it to affect anything with my arm."
The good news is the discomfort seemed to be relatively minor and may have served as more like a warning light flashing on the pitcher’s dashboard before significant damage resulted. At this stage, from what we know, consider that a bullet dodged.
"The level of concern is definitely not very high," deGrom said.
On Sunday, while discussing the matter with deGrom on the mound at the top of the sixth inning, Rojas said his ace first considered pushing through this bout of tightness, which emanated from his lower-back region. That wasn’t much different from deGrom’s stance days earlier, as he convinced the Mets to let him skip the IL and simply delay his start until later in the week.
In the past, trying to soldier through injuries has often led to disastrous consequences for the Mets, so hopefully they’ve learned their lesson in time to spare deGrom such a fate. It was particularly alarming when deGrom’s first MRI -- taken when he was scratched in St. Louis -- revealed right lat muscle inflammation, an ominous diagnosis for a pitcher.
Inflammation tends to be more of a symptom of a bigger issue than the root problem itself. One of the more tragic instances in fairly recent Mets’ memory involved Noah Syndergaard, whose lat discomfort was minimized before later suffering a season-ending tear mid-outing back in 2017.
From what the Mets and deGrom have indicated, he doesn’t appear to be facing that worrisome type of risk, although Sunday’s start was somewhat uncharacteristic from his previous five. He looked a little uncomfortable in the early innings, yet still retired the first 12 hitters for only the fourth time of his career -- striking out only five, a bit low for him.
The sirens went off in the fifth, when deGrom lost his no-hitter on Stephen Vogt’s double to the right-center gap and astonishingly walked three in that same inning. You didn’t need a medical degree to discern that something had to be up with deGrom by that point -- he had walked just four in his previous 35 innings -- and the Mets’ ace signaled for the dugout during warmups at the top of the sixth.
"I was just like, we’ve got to be smart here," deGrom said.
Rojas said he didn’t learn of deGrom’s tightness until then, but acknowledged Tuesday that his mechanics revealed that something was amiss. The Mets just weren’t sure if the glitch was causing deGrom’s discomfort or vice versa, and that’s why they’ve chosen to basically limit his activities to playing catch for the immediate future until the tightness dissipates and they can sort out his mechanics.
"This is what happens sometimes when you get tight from a particular area," Rojas said. "You don’t feel pain, but it really causes you to move differently -- to rotate, land. You can lose your arm angle and it can expose some things. Thank God it didn’t get that way."
No doubt. Averting catastrophe with deGrom is a good strategy. This time, the Mets apparently got lucky. They’ve already come to know deGrom as someone that typically has things creep up occasionally during the course of a long season, which is standard operating procedure for a pitcher these days. The Mets just have to keep their fingers crossed deGrom’s slender build can keep generating his freakish velocity -- his fastball average is 98.9 mph, tops in the majors -- without causing any severe breakdowns along the way.
Despite Sunday’s scare, the expectation is that deGrom should be back before too long. They’ll need to identify the root of the problem, of course, and it doesn’t sound like the Mets and deGrom are quite there yet. But in handling this injury, the Mets seem to be off to a much better start than plenty of their past mistakes. And deGrom is an important one to get right.