Megill gets big K of Soto, rises to occasion

April 8th, 2022

WASHINGTON -- It does not take a keen-eyed advance scout to understand the key to subduing the 2022 Nationals: do not let Juan Soto beat you. Soto stands a strong chance of leading the Majors in walks this season, because most pitchers recognize the value in avoiding him. What those pitchers never want to do is enter a situation in which they have no choice.

That means avoiding the type of situation that , the Mets’ Opening Day replacement starter, faced in the third inning Thursday. Although Megill was pitching well, a run of poor luck resulted in a first-and-third, one-out predicament with Soto sauntering to the plate.

Given no attractive alternative, Megill decided to attack one of baseball’s most potent hitters. He sequenced a changeup for a strike, then another one away. A fastball fouled back, then another one inside. Finally, Megill delivered his pièce de résistance: a 98-mph fastball up in the zone, which Soto swung through for strike three. The rally fizzled and the Mets eventually strung together a few of their own, departing Nationals Park with a 5-1 Opening Day victory.

“A guy of his caliber, as a pitcher, that’s someone you want to get out,” Megill said of Soto. “A guy of that caliber, going toe to toe … here’s my best stuff, see what you do with it.”

It was not only Soto that Megill held at bay; it was everyone. Over five innings, the sophomore right-hander allowed three hits, one of them on a chopper that didn’t leave the infield. Most impressively, he topped out at 99 mph -- more than 1.5 mph harder than he had ever previously thrown in a big league game. Of Megill’s 68 pitches, seven left his hand at higher speeds than anything he threw last season.

“He was electric,” first baseman Pete Alonso said. “He had a lot of poise, a lot of moxie. He pitched incredible tonight, and having him set the tone like that on Opening Night? That was awesome. We needed that.”

Had the Mets not rallied so incessantly in the sixth, Megill might have pitched deeper into the game. As it was, Mark Canha and Jeff McNeil hit RBI singles, the Mets sent eight men to the plate and manager Buck Showalter decided that Megill’s efforts were enough. And so Megill departed, having delivered five shutout innings with six strikeouts and no walks. He hoped to keep the jersey from his start as a souvenir.

“That was fun to watch,” Showalter said. “You couldn’t ask for much better.”

Megill became the fourth Opening Day starter in Mets history to strike out at least six batters with no runs allowed, joining Tom Seaver, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom. He also became the franchise’s MLB-record fourth consecutive Opening Day starter to deliver a scoreless outing, joining deGrom, deGrom and … deGrom.

That Megill even took the mound, of course, was because deGrom couldn’t. deGrom’s shoulder injury late in Spring Training put the Mets’ pitching plans in flux, then a Max Scherzer hamstring tweak left the Mets without either of their aces on Opening Day. They considered various options to fill the spot, from David Peterson to Trevor Williams to a bullpen game. But team officials kept circling back to Megill, whose fine rookie season and strong Spring Training seemed to portend better things to come.

Those better things arrived Thursday in the form of a fastball that was faster than ever before, a changeup that averaged 90 mph and a slider that generated a 63% whiff rate. They are the tools of an ace. And while Megill still has much to prove before he can even approach that sort of conversation, he is already forcing the Mets to consider him in a different light -- not just as an Opening Day substitute, but the type of pitcher who could stick in the rotation all year.

It’s not a dissimilar arc to deGrom, another unheralded prospect who needed circumstances to break in his favor before the world began viewing him for what he was. Like deGrom, Megill has experienced a significant velocity jump, going from a low-90s pitcher two years ago to the version on display at Nationals Park. Like deGrom, Megill possesses what Showalter referred to as a “slow heartbeat.” (When Showalter entered the pregame clubhouse to inform Megill about what became a 76-minute rain delay, he was amazed to find Megill more intent on discussing Tiger Woods’ performance in the Masters.)

While deGrom comparisons may be unfair to anyone, the point revolves more around Megill’s potential. Tabbed for an Opening Day start, Megill has a prime opportunity to stick in the rotation for at least two months with deGrom absent. And if he’s still pitching well then? Why not a season? Why not a career?

“He did his part tonight,” Showalter said. “The reward for that is getting another chance.”