On this historic day at Citi Field, two observations:
- Only a chump will get caught with sticky stuff on his person.
- Only a champ can upend Jacob deGrom
The best pitcher in baseball, coincidentally (by virtue of the schedule) the first hurler to be proactively searched for foreign substances, passed that test with flying colors, twice. No surprise there; deGrom can attribute his vast success to velocity which, unlike spin rate, can’t magically increase via Spider Tack or Pelican Grip or any other such adhesive.
More important for the ace and his club, deGrom broke his alarming streak of consecutive starts cut short by injury at two, tossing five dominant innings Monday to lead the Mets to a 4-2 victory over the Braves in Game 1 of this doubleheader and quieting the objections raised by many, present company included, over moving forward with the right-hander rather than sidelining him out of an abundance of caution.
“I do not like coming out of baseball games [early],” deGrom said. “Hopefully that last one was the last time this year.”
Indeed, deGrom looked so little the worse for wear that, if not for the failure of Mets outfielders Albert Almora Jr. and Dom Smith to track down Kevan Smith’s fifth-inning fly ball to left-center field — a looper with an expected batting average of .030, as per Statcast — the two-time Cy Young Award winner might have made a run at his first no-hitter, albeit in shortened, seven-inning form.
“Health is more important than a special game, right? Especially with the things that have happened this season,” manager Luis Rojas mused when asked whether he would’ve still lifted deGrom after five frames (and 70 pitches) with a no-no. Nevertheless, the skipper refused to answer the query authoritatively. It might very well be for the best that Almora, who apologized to Rojas for the snafu, didn’t sufficiently communicate out there with Smith.
DeGrom’s four-seam fastball hit triple digits five times and his slider accounted for three of his six strikeouts. In his one-bat, with teammates on second and third and two outs, he tried to “slap” the ball, as per his words, and flied out to center field. The 33-year-old can march forth confident in the knowledge that his health will become less of a storyline … which will give folks more time to contemplate his usage or lack thereof of sticky stuff.
The much-awaited search and seizure came off as more comical than dramatic, home-plate umpire Ben May looking almost apologetic as he trotted to cut off deGrom, en route to the Mets’ dugout, in foul territory after a 1-2-3 top of the first. Crew chef Ron Kulpa, hustling over from third base, examined deGrom’s glove, cap and belt as deGrom grinned and the Mets faithful booed. Then the cheers erupted as the umpires, convinced their target was innocent, told deGrom he was free to go. The process repeated itself in the fifth, and deGrom passed once again, as did his Braves counterpart Kyle Muller in the first and all of the relievers for both clubs.
“I didn’t mind it,” deGrom said.
“I was into it. I was really curious,” Rojas admitted. “There’s going to be some innings [when there] might be some emotions, I don’t know. But hopefully everything goes fluid with this process and it keeps good timing. … I was OK with it from the first trial there in that first game. Let’s see how it goes moving forward.”
How dumb would a pitcher have to be to get caught? It’s not like these umps are replicating Frank Drebin’s thorough examination of the Angels pitcher in “The Naked Gun.” Like with steroids, it’ll be as much an IQ test as anything else.
For the Mets, though, their stud widely believed to not be a primary offender, they faced bigger worries and overcame them. They still have the game’s prime arm, able to pass tests significant and silly.