NEW YORK -- Some fans held up their phones to take video, while others simply watched, content to record the moment into memory. Exactly 13 months had passed since Jacob deGrom last appeared on the Citi Field mound. He had made his long-awaited return Tuesday in Washington, but not like this. Not with those first guitar notes of “Simple Man” acting as some unseen force, prompting thousands to freeze in place, turn and stare. Not with nearly every fan in attendance willing deGrom to perfection.
“It was kind of emotional walking out there,” deGrom said afterward. “I hadn’t taken this mound in over a year.”
In his first home start since last July, deGrom fell something short of flawless. He couldn’t be perfect -- not yet anyway, not when limits remain attached to his right arm. But the dominance that deGrom exhibited Sunday over the first five innings of the Mets’ 5-2 win over the Braves, which capped a triumphant weekend at Citi Field, served to expand thoughts of what might be possible in September, in October, even beyond.
If this is who deGrom is now -- if this is who deGrom is again -- then the rest of the National League is officially on notice.
“I wish I was more equipped to say something deserving of his outing,” manager Buck Showalter said. “It was something to watch.”
It was theatric; a two-time Cy Young Award winner with a flourish. In the first inning alone, deGrom whiffed Matt Olson on a 102 mph fastball and Austin Riley on a 96 mph slider, both pitches approaching the hardest he had ever thrown. deGrom struck out two more in a perfect second inning, two more in the third, then another pair in the fourth, the fifth, and the sixth. He fanned a dozen in total and every Braves batter at least once, passing Yu Darvish for the most strikeouts (1,523) by a pitcher through 200 career appearances. Of the 33 sliders deGrom threw, the Braves swung at 20 of them and whiffed on 18.
“I’m like, good God, there’s nothing wrong with him,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s playing catch at 101 and throwing 96 mph sliders. There’s nothing wrong with him, that’s for sure.”
Only in the sixth did deGrom reveal a wisp of mortality, walking nine-hole hitter Ehire Adrianza on five pitches. At that point, the 37,717 packed into Citi Field climbed to their feet again, serenading deGrom for the longest perfect-game bid of his career. On the mound, deGrom knew he was not going to see the seventh inning regardless -- not with a right arm so troublesome it cost him more than a full season of play. He was still frustrated by his uncharacteristic lapse, which continued when he allowed a two-run homer to Dansby Swanson on his final pitch.
The crowd hardly cared. Until those two batters, deGrom’s display of dominance was as thorough as anything he had accomplished previously in his career. In an attempt to describe it after the game, teammate Pete Alonso used the word “incredible” nine times in fewer than two minutes. The implication that deGrom might continue doing such things seemed far more important than Sunday’s final stat line.
“It’s probably sad that I’m not that surprised,” outfielder Brandon Nimmo said. “He is unbelievably talented and unbelievably motivated. If you were playing tiddlywinks, he would want to beat you.”
The Mets had waited for this day all season, understanding deGrom’s importance to their goals despite not always needing his presence. Without deGrom, the Mets managed to build a 10 1/2-game lead over the defending World Series champions. Without deGrom, the Mets maintained that edge even as the Braves threatened it. Now, with deGrom, the Mets feel well-equipped to hold their advantage over the final third of the season.
It’s true, of course, that the Mets are about more than just one pitcher; for evidence, look only to Sunday’s game, which saw Joely Rodríguez provide seven crucial outs in a renaissance performance, Edwin Díaz strike out the side (again) in the ninth, Nimmo collect three hits, Alonso extend his National League RBI lead with a two-run double, and on and on and on. As a result, the Mets won for the fourth time in a five-game series against their closest division rival.
But it’s also true that deGrom, alongside Max Scherzer, has the potential to transform this group from excellent to sublime.
“If anything,” Snitker said, “I think [the Mets] are just getting better.”
That’s an auspicious notion for October, which is where the Mets are headed. Following the win, Nimmo did some quick cocktail-napkin math on the NL East, where the Mets again hold a 6 1/2-game lead. With 53 games to play, and only seven of those against one another, the Braves will find it difficult to catch the Mets by beating them head-to-head. Their only real chance will come if the Mets somehow stumble despite a September schedule that’s one of the easiest in baseball.
The division race didn’t end this weekend, but it certainly solidified.
“It’s a really cool thing we’ve got going,” was how deGrom put it. “The goal is to keep it going.”