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Montero, deGrom make strong first impression

Pair of prospects combine for four perfect innings in Grapefruit League opener

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Even if they stand on the fringes of the Mets' fifth-starter competition, Rafael Montero and Jacob deGrom are not that far removed from relevance. Unlike Noah Syndergaard, an elite prospect with whom the Mets will tread extremely carefully, Montero and deGrom each have realistic shots at sneaking onto the Opening Day roster.

Much can happen between now and March 31, of course. But Montero and deGrom only improved their chances Friday with a combined six strikeouts in four perfect innings, kicking off the Mets' fifth-starter competition in ideal fashion.

"What you saw were guys throwing strikes with good stuff," manager Terry Collins said. "That plays anytime."

Known for what pitching coach Dan Warthen considers textbook mechanics, Montero breezed through the game's first two innings without apparent trouble. Strikeouts of Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche punctuated the outing for Montero, who posted a 2.78 ERA in 27 starts over two levels last season.

"I feel like I'm accustomed to pitching in front of a lot of people," Montero said through an interpreter. "I'm not trying to impress anybody. I'm just out there to pitch."

Once he finished, not much seemed to change. If anything, deGrom outperformed his teammate, whiffing four batters in his own two innings.

"I was nervous," said deGrom, who -- unlike Montero -- was facing a big league lineup for the first time. "I had some butterflies, but I feel like everybody does when they get out there to pitch."

So began a fifth-starter competition that remains an uphill climb for both prospects.

The smart money is on Daisuke Matsuzaka, who began his offseason workout program in mid-October, started throwing early in January and appears, by most estimations, to be in midseason form. Collins lauded Matsuzaka early in camp, saying that if the Mets had to play a meaningful game right away, Matsuzaka would be on the mound. He looked that sharp in early bullpen sessions.

Matsuzaka's primary challenger is Jenrry Mejia, who pitched to a 2.30 ERA in five starts last summer before undergoing season-ending elbow surgery. The Mets have high hopes for Mejia, who is still just 24 years old. But Collins noted earlier this spring that he would consider using Mejia out of the bullpen if he does not make the rotation.

John Lannan rounds out the trio of favorites. A veteran like Matsuzaka, Lannan is coming off knee surgery and a largely unsuccessful season. But he claims he is healthy now, and Lannan will put that confidence to the test in his first spring start Saturday against the Marlins.

Barring injury, the job is likely to go to one of those three. But a few more days like Friday could alter the picture.

"I don't care how good the hitters feel, whether it's early or late," Collins said, referencing the adage that pitchers are almost always ahead of hitters at this early juncture. "If you can throw strikes and move the ball around, you'll get people out. So I was very happy with that, and I think as we get into spring -- and even when the hitters catch up and the pitchers go through that dead-arm stage, which they all do -- if you continue to throw the ball over the plate, you're going to be successful."

That is precisely the formula that helped Montero and deGrom go from organizational afterthoughts to top prospects in the span of a few short years. Obviously gifted, Montero did not sign until age 20, extremely late for a Dominican free agent. But it took him merely three years to reach Triple-A, putting him right back at an age-appropriate level.

Then there is deGrom, a 2010 ninth-round Draft pick who did not advance past Class A ball until last summer, at age 25. Now, suddenly, deGrom is also on the Mets' radar.

"I think both of them kind of settled down when they got comfortable out there, and just made pitches," Collins said. "[Catcher] Travis [d'Arnaud] said both guys moved the ball around the strike zone very well. When they needed a pitch in, they got it in. They kept the ball down for the most part. Two real good arms."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo.

New York Mets, Jacob deGrom, Rafael Montero