Unheralded deGrom the exceptional exception
NEW YORK -- Hours before Chris Heston began his no-hitter Tuesday night, a brief exchange on the bench in visiting dugout at Citi Field focused on the Mets' starters for the first two games of the series against the Giants. Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey were scheduled. A telling comment was prompted by the give-and-take conversation, that the Giants might be ducking the best of the Mets' starters.
No by-name mention of Syndergaard or Harvey had been made, nor was the pitcher tepidly endorsed as "the best of" identified. No question though, the unnamed superlative was Jacob deGrom.
Had that sentiment been expressed publicly, Queens and possibly a few other boroughs would have exploded with incredulity. Better than Harvey. What? It would have mattered not what name has been used as a comparative -- Clayton Kershaw, Gerrit Cole, Corey Kluber or King Felix Hernandez; Max Scherzer or James Shields, Sonny Gray or Zack Greinke. The superlative, the Mets' means of measure in this city and as well as in the Citi is Harvey. To advocate for anyone else would qualify as particularly bold heresy.
Except that Harvey's teammate may be the exception -- for now, anyway. The exceptional exception.
That thought passed through some baseball minds Saturday even before deGrom contributed mightily to the 3-1 lead the Mets produced en route to a troubling 5-3, 11-inning loss to the Braves. And nothing that occurred in his seven innings argued against that possibility. After Freddie Freeman hit the game's eighth pitch half way to Peachtree Street, deGrom outfitted the less formidable members of the Braves' batting order with straitjackets.
He surrendered four more hits and one walk in his nine-strikeout workday. Even without a "W" next to his name in this morning's boxscore, this one qualified as another performance with "wow-factor" credentials for the pitcher who carries an 7-4 record and 2.33 ERA through 13 starts and who, in 28 starts since June 21, has a the second lowest qualifying ERA, 2.15, in the big leagues. Kershaw's ERA in the same period is 2.12.
For the greater part of this comfy afternoon at the park, though, deGrom was the most formidable force. It was the Mets' failure to execute a ground ball double play with one out in the ninth that denied them a third straight victory. And it was the first two of three errors by rookie third baseman Danny Muno that increased deGrom's workload and possibly denied the starter a chance to pitch into the eighth. Who can say how the ninth inning might have evolved had the sequence of relievers begun one inning later?
DeGrom's fine performance Saturday came three days after the Giants beat up Harvey and left him with a six-inning black eye and licking a minor wound to his ego, five runs in an inning. With one victory in his last six starts, Harvey still has a 6-4 record for a team that is offensively and defensively challenged, and that has an bullpen that is a tad inconsistent even when its working parts are not on paternity leave, disabled or suspended.
These days, he too needs reinforcements; every pitcher does. He may need a few more than he needed before his elbow betrayed him two summers ago. For now Harvey is an unknown, even to himself. Who can say whether his pitching has been compromised by some lingering after-effects of reconstructive surgery. Only he knows, and patients aren't always equipped to identify cause and effect.
Harvey's failure to meet the absurdly high expectations of the public that precede each of his starts may be prompted by something as frivolous as the name of the month or the club's choice of uniform that day. Ted Williams endured O-fors, Joe DiMaggio committed four errors in a doubleheader and King Felix allowed eight runs in one-third of an inning Friday night. Runs happen.
As dominating as deGrom was Saturday, one happened before he achieved three outs.
All that aside, deGrom is pitching more effectively these days than Harvey. And perhaps this revised pecking order will last for a few months. Or never change. Or reverse. For now, after six straight terrific starts, deGrom is pitching as well as anyone in the game. And Harvey isn't.
Yet, Harvey is likely to retain the identity and image that developed in 2012 and 2013. First impressions don't fade readily in the game. Even when David Cone clearly was more dominant and effective than Dwight Gooden in 1988, Gooden maintained a level of mystique Cone never approached in his Mets career. Jerry Koosman produced a 21-10 record in 1976. Tom Seaver's record that year was 14-11. And Seaver started on Opening Day, '77.
And the more things change, the more they stay the same.