deGrom's sharp start thwarted by bullpen

April 6th, 2021

PHILADELPHIA -- All the pieces were in place as the Mets had drawn them up. for six innings, then three more from a revamped bullpen to close out Opening Day. In manager Luis Rojas’ eyes, the plan was sound; the plan made sense; the plan would keep deGrom healthy and strong at the outset of the season. So even when deGrom veered off-script, performing so well that he completed his six innings on only 77 pitches, Rojas chose not to stray from it.

Out came deGrom despite his six innings of shutout baseball, despite his streak of nine batters retired in a row, despite Bryce Harper flailing at his final 100 mph pitch. In came the relief corps. Out went the victory.

With deGrom watching from afar on Monday evening, offseason bullpen acquisitions and allowed five runs in the eighth inning of a 5-3 Mets loss to the Phillies. It was the second of two major decisions that dogged Rojas in the wake of defeat.

“We want to win every game,” Rojas said. “We didn’t get a win tonight. We’re definitely disappointed because of that.”

Ace pulled early
What made the deGrom decision so complex was indeed how well he was pitching. Imperfect only by his own lofty standards, deGrom limited the Phillies to three hits over six innings, striking out seven. He touched 102 mph with his fastball and averaged 99. deGrom even contributed an RBI single among two hits at the plate, prompting May to bemoan that “Jake shouldn’t have to do everything himself.”

“That’s not what teams are,” May said. “And frankly, Jake did almost everything today.”

It was only following deGrom’s departure that Opening Day came crashing down around the Mets. After the first man out of the bullpen, Miguel Castro, gave Rojas a scare with a fly ball to the warning track, May loaded the bases on two hits and a walk in the eighth. In came Loup, who plunked Harper on his second pitch and allowed a game-tying J.T. Realmuto single on his third. A Luis Guillorme throwing error allowed two more runs to score, ensuring that the Mets’ offensive spark in the ninth would go for naught.

The Mets' bullpen has blown a potential deGrom win 31 times in his career.

“We were happy as a team, of course, getting one of the best pitchers -- if not the best pitcher in the entire world -- out of the game,” said Phillies slugger Bryce Harper.

The rally can be traced back to deGrom’s exit, which both he and Rojas characterized as a group decision. After learning that the team’s original Opening Day had been postponed due to positive COVID-19 tests in the Nationals' clubhouse last week, deGrom spent days trying to stay sharp for the Mets’ new opener. He threw a bit at Nationals Park, but couldn’t pitch too much because there was a chance the Mets would play on Saturday.

By the time Major League Baseball postponed the entire series, setting the Mets’ first game for Monday in Philadelphia, it was too late for deGrom to face hitters in a high-intensity scrimmage.

So deGrom and Rojas decided that the two-time Cy Young Award winner would go no more than six innings in the opener, regardless of pitch count. That would prevent him from overtaxing his right arm during his first start in 10 days, and also would allow him to come back on regular rest for the Mets’ fifth game of the season later this week.

“Talking to them, coming in, it felt like that was the right decision,” deGrom said. “So that’s what we went with.”

Smith left on the bench
Things, of course, don’t always go according to plan. Before the game, Rojas wrote out his lineup with a surprise at the top: Kevin Pillar, a right-handed outfielder, who replaced the left-handed Dominic Smith. Rojas said Pillar would stay in the game until the Phillies took out lefty starter Matt Moore, and Pillar -- a superior defender -- initially justified that decision with a fine play to cut down a baserunner in the first inning.

But when Pillar’s lineup spot came up with the bases loaded and one out in the fourth, Rojas stuck with him, citing defense as the reason. As Smith -- statistically, the Mets’ most valuable offensive player in 2020 -- watched from the dugout, Pillar grounded into an inning-ending double play.

At the time, it was a curious decision that didn’t seem overly likely to cost the Mets the game. After all, deGrom was cruising, the Mets were making noise and the usual Opening Day optimism was still present.

Even in retrospect, Rojas said, the process was sound. Even while bemoaning the outcome, Rojas said he wouldn’t have done anything differently.

“I’m satisfied,” Rojas said. “Especially on an Opening Day like this where we trust our guys. … We know that the result wasn’t the one desired, but we like the guys that had the ball.”