'MVP!' deGrom K's 15, ascends another tier

April 24th, 2021

NEW YORK -- In his understated way, looked up to the stands, doffed his cap and descended into the home dugout at Citi Field, clutching the final baseball from a historic night. Over eight seasons, deGrom has won two Cy Young Awards and earned countless other accolades, establishing himself as either the best pitcher in baseball or, on his worst nights, at least something close to it.

But even deGrom had never produced a game like this. Few human beings have. Reaching another plane of excellence in a 6-0 win over the Nationals, deGrom fired a two-hitter for his second career shutout, set a personal best with 15 strikeouts, and went 2-for-4 at the plate with a double, two runs scored and an RBI. Statistically, it was the finest performance of a career that has already seen its share of superlatives.

“I don’t think I can totally comprehend it,” outfielder Brandon Nimmo said. “To be honest with you, there are only a handful of people who are that good.”

Few adjectives exist to convey deGrom’s dominance. Even statistics, which so often fill the gap when words fall flat, seem inadequate for a pitcher who keeps getting better. No one can know if this otherworldly run from deGrom will last another week, another month, another season or more. No one can even know if this is the peak.

Whatever it is, it is something to behold. As he warmed in the bullpen before the game, deGrom noticed that his stuff -- a fastball that has hit 102 mph, a slider he routinely throws in the mid-90s, a changeup that would easily be someone else’s best pitch -- seemed even sharper than usual. That made him nervous. In the past, when his bullpens have been that crisp, deGrom has tended to lose focus on the mound. So as he walked across the Citi Field outfield, deGrom silently reminded himself to concentrate and execute.

His first strikeout occurred a few minutes later, on a 101-mph fastball that leadoff man Andrew Stevenson could only watch. His second soon followed, then his third and his fourth. By the game’s midway point, deGrom had amassed nine punchouts in a scoreless game, which made the announced crowd of 8,130 audibly anxious. They had seen this movie before.

Earlier in April, following a particularly frustrating loss, reliever Trevor May remarked with a bit of edge to his voice that deGrom “shouldn’t have to do everything himself.” May is new to the club, but plenty aware of its history: Only infrequently do the Mets play well enough behind deGrom to award him with the outcomes he deserves.

In a subtle nod to that reality, manager Luis Rojas bumped deGrom up to eighth in the batting order, marking the first time a Mets pitcher had slotted there in the last three seasons. deGrom responded with an opposite-field RBI double to plate the game’s first run and induce a collective exhale from the home dugout. Two batters later, Nimmo singled home two more to take doubt out of the equation. (Nimmo later homered in the eighth to turn it into a rout.)

All the while, deGrom kept doing sinister things with the baseball. In the sixth, he struck out the side on a 99-mph fastball, a 100-mph fastball and a 93-mph slider. In the seventh, at a point when pitchers are supposed to be tired, deGrom fanned all three batters again. He completed the eighth inning at 100 pitches, grabbed a bat, and stepped into the on-deck circle to the delight of the crowd. Once more, deGrom hit safely. Once more, the crowd voiced its approval. Then deGrom returned to the mound and retired his final three batters to make it 19 in a row.

“He was just good, man” Nationals manager Dave Martínez said among other mutterings from the visiting clubhouse.

“I mean, he’s really good,” added outfielder Kyle Schwarber. “And there’s no doubt about that.”

Nimmo took it a step further, theorizing that deGrom “has to be from a different planet, because he does things that seem out of this world.” When he departed Citi Field for the evening, deGrom led the Major Leagues with 50 strikeouts, passing Nolan Ryan (1978) and Shane Bieber (2021) for the most by a pitcher in his first four starts of a season. He became the third pitcher to collect 14 or more in three consecutive games, joining Pedro Martínez (1999) and Gerrit Cole (2019) in that category.

deGrom also lowered his MLB-leading ERA to 0.31 and his career mark to 2.55, whizzing by Tom Seaver for the lowest in franchise history. And his Game Score (a statistic that measures the overall effectiveness of a pitcher) on Friday finished at 98, tied for the fourth-highest in franchise history.

Marcus Stroman encapsulated deGrom’s greatness more succinctly, tweeting afterward that “we’ll be telling our grandkids about this man” -- a statement that would have been true even before Friday’s outing. Friday served only to further the legend. Friday served to reframe the narrative of what deGrom is capable of doing, and what might still be possible in the future.

“He is someone that I am in total awe of right now,” said Nimmo, who was far from alone. By the middle innings of deGrom’s magnum opus, the crowd began chanting “M-V-P!” every time he so much as touched a baseball. It’s a chorus that’s likely to reverberate throughout the summer, as deGrom tries to win a third Cy Young Award in four years, push the Mets into the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, and, yes, become the first pitcher since Clayton Kershaw in 2014 to win an MVP.

If anyone is capable of doing it, it’s him. In a recent interview with an SNY reporter, Mets catcher James McCann said that deGrom does not simply want to beat his opponents, but “take your heart and your soul in the process.” Asked about that mindset after the game, deGrom offered a wry grin, a long sigh, and eventually an acquiescence.

“I mean, it’s part of competing,” deGrom said. “Those guys are trying to beat me. I’m trying to beat them.”

He smiled again. “I’ll leave it at that.”