If Jacob deGrom can’t save the Mets, no one can. And once his greatness falls short, you really have to start asking if maybe this wild card thing wasn’t meant to be after all.
When the Cubs’ Victor Caratini, playing for the injured Anthony Rizzo, twice takes deGrom into the rightfield upper deck, the second time for a tiebreaking three-run shot in the seventh inning, it’s got to be a sign.
As Caratini’s blast Thursday night soared toward the Coca-Cola Corner, you could feel the air sucked out of Citi Field. Stunning doesn’t begin to describe the sensation — from the cheap seats all the way to the Mets’ dugout.
“You’re like, ‘What just happened?’ ” Mickey Callaway said.
That noise you just heard, the sound of Caratini’s bat crushing a slider, may have signaled the end of the Mets’ playoff push. And deGrom, who was forced to soldier through yet another start with minuscule run support — just a first-inning homer from J.D. Davis — could carry the Mets only so far before they stumbled to a 4-1 loss, their sixth straight to end the homestand.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” deGrom said.
Poor deGrom. Frustration, as far as wins and losses go, is second nature to him, right after breathing and sleeping.
He entered Thursday with a 1.88 ERA since May 22, the best in the majors during that span, and had allowed three or fewer runs in all 17 of those starts. His record during that dominance? 5-2.
Last Friday against the Braves, deGrom’s solo homer was the team’s entire offense. He struck out 13 in seven innings, and the Mets lost in the 14th, 2-1.
He again was given no margin for error in facing the Cubs, and he’s only human. He allowed five hits and struck out seven without a walk as his ERA climbed slightly to 2.66.
Caratini burned him twice on the same pitch, a slider in nearly identical spots. But after the solo homer in the second inning, deGrom retired 15 consecutive batters before Kris Bryant’s one-out single in the seventh. Javier Baez followed with another base hit, and deGrom went to work on Caratini again, alternating fastballs and changeups that he kept fouling off.
With the changeup at 89 mph and the heater at 98, deGrom thought he had him set up for the slider, and Callaway agreed from the dugout. Afterward, deGrom said he didn’t hit his spot exactly but that the pitch wasn’t terrible, and Caratini pulled the ball inside the rightfield foul pole by a few feet.
“That’s tough to keep fair, I felt like,” deGrom said. “I wanted it more down, more back foot, but he got me.”
And so it goes for the Mets, who have become the best in the league at stranding their ace going on two seasons now. The four runs were the most deGrom had allowed since May 17, and with his own team virtually silent at the plate, a mistake like that becomes fatal.
Never mind that his bid to repeat as Cy Young winner was gaining serious momentum and that he entered Thursday with 207 strikeouts, the most in the NL. The fact that the Mets had deGrom on the mound for such a critical game Thursday seemed like their first lucky break in days.
To get an idea of just how shocking Caratini’s two homers were, deGrom hadn’t allowed two in a game since June 18 — a dozen starts ago — and hadn’t been touched for an extra-base hit in any of his last three starts. “Guys are on a roll until they’re not on a roll,” Callaway said.
That included most of the Mets’ rotation during the six- game slide, but we just figured deGrom would be immune. Overall, the entire group got torpedoed by huge home runs — nine in the last four starts, a stretch of 22 innings. Turns out even deGrom couldn’t escape the riptide that threatens to drag these Mets under.
It’s a team-wide malaise, and the Mets’ offense is looking powerless to cover for any slip-ups by their starting rotation. Even the much-maligned bullpen finally had pulled it together, with a 2.86 ERA in the five games leading up to Thursday, with eight walks and 33 strikeouts.
Ultimately, the miraculous second half surge that got the Mets to within a half-game of a wild card berth at its peak may all be for nothing. The Mets splintered at the worst possible time, unable to sustain a unified winning effort when it mattered most.
We were reminded again Thursday that even deGrom can’t do it alone.