PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- There was an uncommon buzz at Clover Field on Tuesday evening as Jacob deGrom took the mound for the first time in eight months, carrying the weight of a fan base on his shoulders.
With each pitch, murmurs rippled through the crowd. Grapefruit League games may not matter much, but in the eyes of many, this one certainly did.
The last time deGrom had toed the pitching rubber in a game setting was July 7. In subsequent weeks, the two-time Cy Young Award winner began experiencing enough consistent elbow soreness to knock him out of one start, then another, then eventually the entire second half of the season.
Without deGrom, the Mets spiraled, falling from first place to third. So it was a comforting sight for thousands at Clover Park to see deGrom not merely take the mound, but look much the same as he always has, reaching 99 mph and striking out five of the seven batters he faced in a 2-0 blanking of the Astros.
“I was nervous, to be honest with you,” deGrom said, before adding: “It’s reassuring to go out there and feel completely fine.”
This offseason, deGrom made a small but telling change to his routine: He began lifting heavier weights than he previously had in his career. The results were subtle, but noticeable enough that in the early days of camp, plenty of folks noticed a physical change in deGrom.
“He looks really good,” pitching coach Jeremy Hefner said.
The alteration was not necessarily designed to protect his elbow, but Hefner noted that it could certainly have that effect, so long as deGrom stays limber. He did; while deGrom may have added a bit of muscle, he didn’t actually gain any weight. He’s still the same wire-thin, fast food-loving pitcher he always has been.
Even so, deGrom’s willingness to change even a little bit is an acknowledgement that at age 33, with only 160 innings on his arm over the past two seasons, durability will be crucial for the rest of his career.
“You talk about fatigue in a game, like pitches 75 to 110, if you’re strong and you have that muscle, then you’re not depending on your ligaments and your joints to generate the force,” Hefner said. “You’re actually using the muscle to generate the force. As long as it’s malleable and the muscles are working properly, that’s only a value add.”
Even though deGrom reported to camp healthy, confident and strong, the Mets are treading carefully with their ace for obvious reasons. He threw just 30 pitches in his Grapefruit League debut and will have only two more chances to stretch out in games before leaving Florida. If all goes according to plan, that will set deGrom up to be on a limit of around five innings and 75 pitches on Opening Day -- a conservative number befitting of a pitcher who missed 3 1/2 months because of elbow woes.
Only if all goes well will the Mets more fully unleash deGrom, who appears to be on board with the relatively slow progression. On Tuesday, deGrom was focusing on being “smooth” in his mechanics, he said, which meant “not trying to throw as hard as I can.” That took the form of mostly 97-98 mph fastballs, a few ticks shy of where he’s been in the past in Grapefruit League debuts. Only one of deGrom’s 30 pitches exceeded 98 mph, and that one required rounding up.
“I’m sure there will be times when I throw as hard as I can,” deGrom said. “When I’m really in sync and smooth, it comes out better than when I actually try to throw really hard.”
Whether all of this -- the slow ramp-up, the reduced velocity, the extra iron plates in the weight room -- will make any difference remains to be seen. For now, consider it a crucial unknown. For all their offseason adds and improvements, the Mets understand that nothing is as important to their season-long outlook as a consistently healthy deGrom.
“That’s how fleeting it can be,” manager Buck Showalter said. “It’s about the what-ifs, the guys that we’re going to depend on.”