deGrom on Opening Day nod: 'A huge honor'

Mets' ace will be making third consecutive season-opening start

March 6th, 2021

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Mets manager Luis Rojas chuckled at the question, understanding the obviousness that needed to be said. Yes, will start Opening Day on April 1 in Washington. No, the Mets did not consider anyone else.

“You can call it an easy decision,” Rojas said.

All of this is now routine for deGrom, who will become the fourth pitcher in Mets history to start three consecutive Opening Days. Only Tom Seaver (1968-77) and Dwight Gooden (1988-91) posted longer streaks, and this would have marked four in a row for deGrom had a minor injury not prevented him from pitching the Mets’ opener in 2018.

“It’s a huge honor,” he said.

As a tuneup, deGrom surprised precisely no one in touching 100 mph during his Grapefruit League debut Saturday in a 6-1, rain-shortened win over the Astros at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Stretching out to two scoreless innings and 29 pitches, deGrom allowed a hit and a walk, but he punctuated his outing with a trio of strikeouts -- one looking, two swinging. All three registered 99 mph on the stadium radar gun.

For nearly anyone else, that might seem like a bold performance. For deGrom, it’s just another spring outing.

“I don’t think there’s another pitcher like him in the rest of the league,” Mets closer Edwin Díaz said through an interpreter. “He’s from a different planet.”

Former Mets captain David Wright has called deGrom the most competitive person he’s ever met, which may not be hyperbole. Earlier this week, deGrom was due to throw live batting practice on a backfield in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Wanting to juice up the competition level, deGrom asked one of the Mets’ best hitters, Michael Conforto, to stand in.

“Are you scared?” deGrom asked him.

“No, I’m not scared,” replied Conforto, who struck out, grounded out and then homered in his third at-bat.

Following the home run, Conforto began faux jogging back to the clubhouse as a joking way to tell deGrom he was finished. deGrom would have none of it, demanding Conforto return to home plate so he could face him again. The two-time Cy Young Award winner threw him four consecutive changeups and finally a slider, which Conforto hit for another homer.

“That day I got him,” Conforto said with a grin.

It was a rare moment of imperfection from deGrom, who has become so in-tune with his delivery that he’s able to make minute adjustments on the fly -- not just from game to game or inning to inning, but from pitch to pitch. A series of mechanical tweaks, along with a years-long focus on regular throwing and long-tossing programs, has allowed deGrom to increase his velocity from the low- to upper-90s, with the ability to ramp his fastball as high as 101 mph. His slider and changeup are both devastating pitches that have also improved over the seasons.

In short, deGrom is a true ace -- “Our No. 1 guy,” as his manager put it -- which is why his appointment as the Mets’ Opening Day starter came with so little fanfare.

“Everybody knows he falls in that place,” Rojas said. “The rest of the pitchers here, the players look up to him.”

Even so, deGrom remains human, and not just because he sometimes allows back-field homers. When the Mets faced the Astros with a representative lineup behind him, including Conforto, Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor, Jeff McNeil, Dominic Smith and others, deGrom admitted to feeling a bit anxious.

Those nerves will assuredly return on Opening Day, when he takes on the Nationals. Given the late start to his career, deGrom isn’t ever likely to challenge Seaver for the most Opening Day starts in franchise history, but he’s the closest thing this generation of fans has to that type of pitcher.

It’s not a mantle deGrom takes lightly.

“When you’re mentioned with guys like that, it truly is an honor,” he said. “It’s something that I try not to think too much about, trying to keep things simple. But the more it’s mentioned, you definitely start thinking about it. So it definitely is a cool thing.”