King of deRoad: W has Met among elite
Righty regroups after 29-pitch first, relies less on fastball during rest of seven-inning outing
CHICAGO -- Consider what Jacob deGrom's pitching line in Tuesday night's Game 3 of the National League Championship Series would have looked like with the first inning removed: six innings, one run, one hit, one walk and six strikeouts, all on 71 pitches -- an average of fewer than 12 per inning.
Those six innings were vintage deGrom, pacing the Mets in a 5-2 win over the Cubs that gave them a 3-0 series lead. Much like the six he gutted through during Game 5 of the NL Division Series in Los Angeles, it became the type of outing that is suddenly his trademark; whenever deGrom seems about to crack, he morphs into an entirely different animal.
"He's able to breathe. He's able to focus," Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen said. "More than anything, it's his ability to absolutely focus on every individual pitch."
The victory was a historic one for deGrom, who became just the fifth pitcher in Major League history to win three games on the road in one postseason, joining John Smoltz (1996), Freddy Garcia (2005), Cliff Lee (2010) and Madison Bumgarner (2014).
Much like in Los Angeles, deGrom appeared to be in trouble during a 29-pitch first inning at Wrigley Field, giving up Kyle Schwarber's solo homer on a 96-mph fastball well off the plate, then two more singles before escaping the jam. At best, deGrom seemed capable of gutting through four or five innings. At worst, given Chicago's offensive firepower, he was looking at an early knockout.
In explaining how he avoided either fate, going on to deliver seven standout innings, deGrom shrugged that "I don't know why the first inning has been so tough for me." His pitching coach chalked it up to a bit of machismo; in these most important starts of his career, Warthen said, deGrom has taken the mound with extra adrenaline. But breathing helps. Calming himself does wonders. Focusing on the mechanics that made him an All-Star, rather than the velocity readings that pop up on the scoreboard, is critical.
"Adrenaline is like fire," Warthen said. "It's a valuable servant but a dangerous master. So he's got to control that a little bit, keep his shoulders level, throw the ball downhill. And when he does that, he's in fine shape."
It was a conversation with catcher Travis d'Arnaud between innings that helped deGrom limit the Cubs to just one other hit -- a Jorge Soler homer -- the rest of the way. In the first inning, deGrom threw 20 fastballs among his 29 pitches, relying on upper-90s power more than two-thirds of the time. From the second through seventh innings, he threw more than two-thirds offspeed pitches, relying heavily on his changeup, slider and curve.
"I talked to Travis and I noticed that they were hitting the fastball pretty well," deGrom said. "So I said, 'Hey, let's try to throw some offspeed up there early on and see if we can get early contact, and that ended up working for me."
"His command tightened up a bit," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "I thought early on ... a lot of pitches were high. I don't think he knew where the ball was going, and all of a sudden he found out where it was going. And that's what happened."
What happened was that after Soler's homer, deGrom retired 11 straight to finish his night, becoming the first pitcher in Major League history to strike out seven-plus batters in each of his first three postseason starts while winning all of them.
"That's who he's been all year," d'Arnaud said. "Nobody was panicking. We all believed in him. And he did it."