NEW YORK -- Jacob deGrom toted his son, one-year-old Jaxon, to the Citi Field family room, then made the short walk back to his locker. On the top shelf rested the ball from his first career home run -- deGrom plans to give that to his father, Tony, who was in attendance Sunday for the Mets' 5-1 Father's Day win over the Nationals. The bat, a David Wright model, will stay in deGrom's possession.
These were the trappings of one of deGrom's finest starts of the season: an eight-inning, one-run performance that he punctuated with his first career home run. During a season that has seen the Mets lose Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey due to injury, deGrom is finally beginning to reclaim his berth as the Mets' ace.
"You've got to have that guy," manager Terry Collins said. "You've got to have the guy. And right now, Jake's leading the pack to be the guy."
Because there have been false starts before for deGrom, the Mets couldn't be entirely sure which version of him might throw open the double doors to the clubhouse on Sunday, five days after a complete-game victory. It turned out to be the dominant sort, capable of holding the high-octane Nationals to three hits, two walks and an unearned run in eight innings.
With deGrom's teammates struggling to support him early in the game, he even added his first home run, a 379-foot, opposite-field, game-tying shot in the third. It was the Mets' first homer by a pitcher since Noah Syndergaard last Aug. 16, and deGrom's first since he was at Triple-A Las Vegas.
A college shortstop, deGrom has always been a strong hitter for his position, carrying a .199 career average into Sunday's game. But he had just five extra-base hits -- all doubles -- in 201 career plate appearances until his home run.
"I didn't know it was gone," deGrom said. "But that's where I seem to hit balls in batting practice, so I knew if I got it over there, it would have a chance."
Recently, deGrom tried out Wright's bat in a game, joking that it was "a bunting bat," of use only in sacrifice scenarios. But deGrom lugged that same Wright model to the plate to lead off the third against Nationals starter Joe Ross.
"I was surprised that Jake has that much pop to the opposite field," said Michael Conforto, the Mets' resident expert on such homers. "He's got to do what I do, keep using the field."
Much like Conforto has buoyed the offense for much of this season, deGrom also must become a stabilizing force for the rotation. Despite gaudy strikeout totals, he struggled to do so over the season's first 10 weeks, most recently giving up 15 runs over eight innings in a pair of starts against the Brewers and Rangers. Afterward, deGrom and pitching coach Dan Warthen scoured the team's video archives for clues about what he might be doing wrong. The two came up with a series of mechanical adjustments that deGrom began applying.
Since that time, deGrom is 2-0 with a 0.53 ERA, eight hits, 12 strikeouts and six walks in 17 innings.
"He got away from who he is," Collins said. "And now he's back. ... Those kinds of guys, they stop losing streaks. You lose three in a row, who shows up? Jake deGrom."
Mostly, deGrom was happy simply to share Sunday's outing with Tony and Jaxon, three generations of deGroms all piled into Citi Field on a sunny afternoon.
"I'm glad I was able to go out there and pitch well," deGrom said. "Baseball's a funny game. After those two [bad starts], I was just trying to prepare for these next ones. And that's all you can do."