PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The slow crawl of Jacob deGrom's spring crescendoed into something tangible on Sunday, when he took the mound for the first time in a Grapefruit League game. deGrom's first pitch of the spring clocked in at 95 mph. His second was 96. His third, also 96, buzzed across home plate's outside corner, giving deGrom the first of three consecutive strikeouts.
"You go face your own hitters in live BPs and sim games, whatever, you want to get them out," deGrom said. "But when you go face another team and you're actually in a game game, it's definitely different. I had some nerves, some adrenaline."
It was a brilliant beginning to a fine debut for deGrom, who gave up two runs in the second inning but returned for the third, striking out one last batter before departing. All told, deGrom whiffed four in 2 2/3 innings in the Mets' 5-2 loss to the Astros, allowing two runs.
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"You saw the stuff, the velo," manager Mickey Callaway said. "He wasn't holding back. He was letting it go. It was good to see."
Most importantly, deGrom did not experience even a whisper of the back stiffness that delayed his spring agenda in the first place, declaring himself healthy and ready to gear up for his regular-season debut -- whenever that might be.
While the Mets have not publicly dismissed the possibility of deGrom pitching Opening Day, their required starter progression -- "For Jacob deGrom, we will not make an exception," pitching coach Dave Eiland said recently -- doesn't provide a realistic path for him to do so. Most likely, Noah Syndergaard will take the ball March 29, with deGrom slotting in behind him for Game 2.
"I don't feel like I'm that far behind right now," deGrom said. "I feel like I'm pretty close. The goal is to make every start from here on out to the end of the season."
deGrom's optimism stems from his preparation: a throwing progression that included multiple standard bullpen sessions, a 30-pitch simulated game and a 40-pitch extended bullpen in the weeks leading up to Sunday's start. By the time deGrom took the mound at First Data Field, he felt confident not merely that his mid-February bout of back stiffness was behind him, but that it was never much of an issue in the first place. Last week, deGrom bristled when a reporter referred to it as an "injury," continually downplaying its significance.
"All that was precautionary, just to be smart and make sure it was nothing," deGrom said. "Everything is fine and we'll keep going from here."
The back issue's only real significance may be its effect on his availability for Opening Day -- a start he insists he is at peace with missing. Although Eiland and others say deGrom deserves that assignment on the basis of his 15-10 record and 3.53 ERA last season, the whole group prefers to take a broader view.
"I feel healthy," deGrom said. "That was the main thing."