NEW YORK -- They stuck around afterward, most of their feet rooted to the concrete, some on tiptoes craning for a better look. A few minutes earlier, Jacob deGrom had thrown the final pitch of the best season of his life -- one of the best seasons, by some measures, of any pitcher in modern Major League history. He walked off the mound to a standing ovation and to "M-V-P!" chants from fans who, at this point, are looking even beyond the National League Cy Young Award. In the home dugout, Dominic Smith turned to David Wright and said he felt chills.
So did many who stuck around to listen to deGrom, lingering on the field in a blue hooded sweatshirt, try to find words for what perhaps only numbers can describe. In beating the Braves, 3-0, on Wednesday at Citi Field, deGrom completed a season in which he posted the sixth-lowest ERA, 1.70, of any qualified pitcher since Major League Baseball lowered the mound to its current height in 1969. He tallied 269 strikeouts, fourth-most in Mets history, and a single-season record 24 consecutive quality starts.
"I haven't faced everybody in the game, so I don't know," Braves catcher Tyler Flowers said. "But I can't imagine anybody being any better than that."
That deGrom finished with a 10-9 record no longer seems as ominous for his Cy Young chances as it perhaps once did. Smith was the one who prevented him from having to contend for the award with a .500 record, singling in the sixth to drive home Michael Conforto. Two innings later, Conforto and Smith both homered to provide the game's final margin.
By that time, deGrom was in the dugout with 110 pitches on his ledger and 1,000 career strikeouts. Imperfect early in his final start, he allowed leadoff hits in both the first and second innings. But after Johan Camargo singled to open the second, deGrom retired each of the final 20 batters he faced. For many of them, there was little contest; when deGrom broke perennial MVP candidate Freddie Freeman's bat on a groundout, Atlanta's first baseman dropped the jagged remains and laughed. As he jogged past deGrom, Freeman quipped that at least he did not strike out.
Ten others did, making deGrom the fastest in Mets history to reach 1,000 strikeouts to start a career. He sped to the milestone in just 897 2/3 innings, beating Dwight Gooden's previous mark of 1,074 2/3 innings. deGrom also allowed one or zero runs in 18 of his 32 starts, second only to Gooden's 1985 season, in which he accomplished the feat in 19 of his 35 starts, in the franchise record books.
"Looking back now," deGrom said, "I guess it's kind of crazy."
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Comparisons to Gooden and Tom Seaver, at this point, are routine for deGrom, who has risen into their echelon as one of the best pitchers in Mets history.
"I don't know how anybody ever beats him," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "You don't like to face him. But you know what? When you do face him, man, you appreciate what he is and what he can do."
Once an afterthought on New York's organizational depth chart, deGrom burst into the city's consciousness when he won NL Rookie of the Year honors in 2014, following that up with strong seasons the next three years. But as recently as late spring, his '18 campaign seemed less dynamic than that of fellow Cy Young competitor Max Scherzer -- particularly when a hyperextended right elbow forced him to miss a start in May.
Any lack of consistency dissolved by the middle of that month, as deGrom began reeling off quality starts at an historic rate. deGrom's run continued into July and August, when his ERA never rose higher than 1.85 nor lower than 1.68. And it remained strong through Wednesday, when deGrom froze Ozzie Albies on a 92-mph slider to end his season.
"He pitched incredible," said Jeff McNeil, who made two fine defensive plays behind deGrom. "There's no doubt he should win the Cy Young this year for what he's done."
That, ultimately, will be up to the Baseball Writers' Association of America voters, who submit their ballots next week. The award announcement is scheduled for November. For now, MLB is taking no chances, authenticating deGrom's hat, his jersey and the cleats he wore in his final game.
"I wish I had more wins," deGrom said. "But I feel like I put myself in a pretty good position."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Taking the lead: Smith admitted to feeling some extra pressure when he approached the plate with two outs and a man on second in a scoreless game in the sixth. Facing reliever Luke Jackson, Smith fell into an 0-2 hole before shooting an outside slider back up the middle for an RBI single.
"I was sweating in that moment," Smith said. "You just want, obviously, to help anybody on your team, but especially him with the year he's had. As a team, we do put more pressure on ourselves when we get in those situations. To be able to come through, it was awesome."
Since MLB lowered the pitcher's mound in 1969, only Gooden (1.53 in '85), Greg Maddux (1.56 in '94 and 1.63 in '95), Zack Greinke (1.66 in '15) and Nolan Ryan (1.69 in '81) have posted lower ERAs than deGrom. Two of the five seasons (Ryan and Greinke) did not end in a Cy Young Award.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Often derided for his defense in the Minor Leagues, McNeil continued his consistent excellence since reaching the Majors with a pair of difficult plays to back deGrom. The first occurred in the fourth inning, when McNeil slid to his right to prevent a Nick Markakis grounder from bouncing into right-center field.
Three innings later, McNeil dove to snare an Ender Inciarte liner, robbing the Braves of what would have been their first hit since the second.
"I'm just trying to make all the plays I can for [deGrom]," McNeil said.
HE SAID IT
"I think it's his demeanor. I think it's the way he handles adversity. I think it's the way he was probably brought up by his parents, how he goes about his business, his work ethic. You can talk about routines and all that, and he accomplishes those every day. … The work that he puts in, the way that he supports his teammates, he's the ultimate team player. And when he's out on the mound, he's the ultimate ace." -- Mets manager Mickey Callaway, on deGrom
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Jason Vargas will look for one last strong start when he takes the mound Thursday for the Mets' series finale against the Braves at Citi Field. Vargas, who is 4-1 with a 3.11 ERA over his last seven outings, will oppose right-hander Julio Teheran in the 7:10 p.m. ET game.