The Jacob deGrom narrative going into Tuesday’s game against the Twins was all about scoreless-inning streaks, besting Bob Gibson for the quality-start record and the usual all-around awesomeness of the defending Cy Young winner.
Then a cold, sobering reality set in.
After a frigid, 46-degree first pitch, deGrom settled into an alarmingly mortal outing, one where he struggled with command and basically abandoned his slider after Mitch Garver took him over the centerfield wall in the second inning.
As shocking as that Garver bomb was, the Twins’ catcher did it again in the third, almost as if to hammer home the point that even deGrom can be human occasionally — just with far less frequency than the normal pitcher. The final line was startling: four innings, eight hits (three homers), six runs, one walk, three strikeouts. And the result was a 3.18 ERA that felt like three times as large.
By the time the Mets’ 14-8 loss to the Twins was over, there were maybe a few dozen fans left at Citi Field. The only lingering concern, as the clock approached midnight, was whether deGrom emerged OK from the outlier of an evening. One L is nothing in the grand scheme, as long as deGrom’s erratic start was just that — one isolated start. Afterward, he insisted it was.
“Tonight’s on me,” deGrom said. “It was a bad outing. It’s baseball — this game will humble you quick.”
The immediate reaction to such an implosion — and again, this is by deGrom’s Olympian standards — is to look for the smoking gun, the reason everything wasn’t as perfect as we’ve come to expect from the Mets’ ace. Maybe it’s as simple as this particular reign having an expiration date.
Garver’s first homer stopped deGrom’s scoreless streak at 27 innings, but it was Eddie Rosario’s third-inning blast that deprived him of passing Gibson, leaving both stuck on 26 consecutive quality starts. But he didn’t have history on his mind. Just survival. As good as deGrom felt warming up, that positive vibe didn’t last.
“I just couldn’t locate anything,” deGrom said. “I was all over the place. The slider wasn’t even a factor tonight.”
It’s rare to see deGrom search so hard for answers, and his over-reliance on a subpar fastball was an indication of just how bad he was going. After two innings, deGrom already was at 46 pitches, and that climbed to 76 through three. He routinely fell into three-ball counts, and his fastball averaged 96.1 mph, which was a few ticks below his usual mean this season.
Before Tuesday, deGrom had been a supernatural force, somehow elevating beyond his Cy Young self of last season. A year ago at this time, deGrom featured a fastball that averaged 95.0 mph with a 97.3 max, according to BrooksBaseball.net. His slider averaged 90.4 with a 92.5 peak.
But this year, in his first two starts, deGrom’s fastball averaged 97.9 mph with a 99.3 max. And the slider? That jumped to 94.1 mph, with a 95.4 peak.
After wondering if deGrom could come anywhere close to last year’s history-making run, those radar-run readings started to entertain the notion that it might be possible. Either that, or deGrom — the new Cy trophy in tow — could be pushing himself too hard, too soon. Everyone just assumed it was the former, that deGrom had found another gear, like the cheat mode of a video game.
“The thing that you can’t ever underestimate is, when he was pitching last year, he was not a Cy Young winner,” Callaway said before Tuesday’s game. “All of a sudden, you’re a Cy Young winner, you probably feel a little bit better about yourself because of that work you put in the year before.”
But deGrom was very hittable Tuesday, in a way we barely remembered. The last time he allowed more than three runs this early was a year ago to the day — April 10, when the Marlins got him for four in six innings in the Mets’ 8-6 win in Miami.
The Twins savaged him on Tuesday, however, making solid contact on whatever deGrom tried to throw. Even the outs had triple-digit exit velos as deGrom didn’t miss many barrels. His frustration finally bubbled over in the fourth when Max Kepler punched a 94-mph slider into centerfield for a run-scoring single that put the Twins up, 6-3. As the ball skidded through, deGrom doubled over on the mound, hands on knees, yelling at himself.
It took 97 pitches for deGrom to finish those four innings, some of the worst you’ll ever see from him. Everyone had just forgotten what that looked like.