Jacob deGrom #48 of the Mets prepares for a game...

Jacob deGrom #48 of the Mets prepares for a game against Atlanta at Citi Field on Sunday, Aug. 7, 2022. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The haunting guitar riffs of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” hadn’t been heard at Citi Field for 396 days. It was an eternity for the Mets and their longing fans, not to mention the pitcher standing on that Flushing mound Sunday afternoon as the song heralded his return.

“It was kind of emotional walking out there,” Jacob deGrom said. “It’s been a while. I had to take a second, get myself together and then try to refocus.”

Everyone in the ballpark remembered the ace deGrom used to be, had visualized in their mind’s eye what this day would be like. Thirteen months felt like forever when you’re waiting to see a true phenomenon in person, up close. Can the reality ever live up to the anticipation built up over that much time?

We all got the answer when the chords of “Simple Man” faded away.

The Mets’ Superman was indeed back, and his performance far exceeded our imagination in their 5-2 victory over Atlanta.

Did anyone possibly think going in that deGrom would make the defending world champs look like nervous low-A kids from his rehab tour?

This was only his second start since recovering from a stress reaction in his right shoulder blade, the first essentially a glorified tuneup against a gutted Nationals team that just said goodbye to Juan Soto and Josh Bell.

 

On Sunday, it didn’t matter who was standing there in the box. They would have been just as effective going up empty-handed. DeGrom struck out 12 and was perfect into the sixth inning before issuing a two-out walk to No. 9 hitter Ehire Adrianza (.184) on only his second three-ball count of the afternoon.

DeGrom’s dominance was so complete, the humiliation of Atlanta so thorough, that what happened on his final pitch stunned the Citi Field crowd of 37,717 into breathless disbelief. After that walk to Adrianza, the first smudge in deGrom’s brilliance, he left a 1-and-1 fastball up to Dansby Swanson, who smacked the 98-mph pitch into the Mets’ bullpen.

As invincible as deGrom appeared Sunday, being human remains his lone weakness, and he’s technically not at full strength from an endurance standpoint. The pregame plan was to have him go 75 pitches or six innings — whichever came first — and Buck Showalter quickly popped from the dugout after pitch No. 76 landed on the other side of the fence.

DeGrom received yet another standing ovation on his walk off the field, but once he returned to the dugout, he fired his glove into the bench, obviously upset with his last  few pitches. Afterward, however, he was visibly pleased by the performance. There was a lot to be happy about.

By reaching 1,523 strikeouts Sunday, deGrom now has the highest total by a pitcher in 200 career starts. He whiffed each of Atlanta’s starters at least once, and his 12 Ks were the most by a Mets pitcher since he fanned 14 on July 1 of last season.

Here’s a few of his otherworldly stats: DeGrom threw seven of his first eight pitches at at least 100 mph, averaged 99.1 with his fastball and maxed out at 101.6. As for the slider, rarely do major-league hitters know what’s coming and still fail to even make contact. Atlanta’s hitters swung and missed at his first 18 sliders, and his 90% whiff rate Sunday was the highest for one pitch in one outing since the pitch-tracking era began (2008).

Also of note: deGrom’s 95.7-mph slider that whiffed Austin Riley in the first inning was the fastest slider-strikeout pitch of the Statcast era, edging Noah Syndergaard’s 95.6 in 2016.

“He had some incredible, incredible moments today,” Pete Alonso said. “It’s going to be really exciting when he’s built up to 100, 110 pitches and see him take over a game.”

DeGrom owned all but two pitches of Sunday’s six innings, and for a while, it looked as if Showalter was going to have a difficult decision on his hands. If deGrom stayed perfect, would they have pushed beyond the original plan into the seventh? The five perfect innings matched his career best, but he wasn’t ready for a shot at history just yet.

“I probably would have had to let it be,” deGrom said, smiling. “You take that long, and it takes you over a year to come back to playing major-league baseball, you don’t want to do anything dumb right when you get back. I probably would have let them take me out.”

The one question I had afterward was a simple one. Watching him dismantle the defending world champs like that, with arguably the most lethal fastball-slider combo he’s ever displayed, is it possible that this deGrom  actually is better than the previous two-time Cy Young  Award winner? 

“I feel good — that’s the main goal,” deGrom said. “Cleaning up some mechanics, I feel really good. I’m comfortable where I’m at right now.”

Back with the Mets, back at Citi Field. Sunday’s homecoming for deGrom was perfect, regardless of what the boxscore said.