December 2, 2023

WASHINGTON – Some of the best players in baseball have changed teams in recent days, including Juan Soto, the talented young slugger who was traded by the Washington Nationals to the San Diego Padres before Major League Baseball’s trade deadline on Tuesday.

The Mets made a few trades of their own, but only to improve the team around the edges. They didn’t do anything spectacular, other than welcome back a generational pitcher.

Jacob deGrom, the two-time National League Cy Young Award winner, returned to the mound on Tuesday night after more than a year out with injuries and looked almost as dominant as ever.

DeGrom, who has been out of spring training with a stress injury to his right shoulder blade, threw five innings of unstoppable baseball and allowed one run and three hits while striking out six. The Nationals were playing a depleted lineup after sending Soto and Josh Bell to the Padres earlier in the day for a collection of valuable prospects, and they looked overmatched and bewildered for most of the game.

Showcasing his signature fastball and pairing it with smart off-speed pitches at key moments for strikes, deGrom hit 100 mph 13 times among his 59 pitches, including one that reached 101.6 mph against Victor Robles, Washington’s first game.

When he hit veteran slugger Nelson Cruz with a 93 mph slider in the second inning, Cruz returned to the bench shaking his head.

But in an exercise of caution, the Mets removed deGrom, who is 34 and has a history of injury problems, after the fifth inning. The Nationals capitalized on home runs by Luis Garcia and Yadiel Hernandez in relief of Steven Nogosek in the sixth, and the Nationals won 5-1.

But that was a very small picture thing. The most important development was that deGrom looked strong and almost unstoppable — in other words, like himself — and fans can now see a clearer picture of an enticing playoff rotation for the first-place Mets, with deGrom and Max Scherzer at the head of it.

Many of those fans poured into Nationals Park on Tuesday, eager to see deGrom in person for the first time since July 7, 2021, when a right forearm injury forced him to miss the rest of the season. Then in spring training he developed the stress reaction, which can lead to a stress fracture.

His return came almost 13 months after his last outing.

“Can you imagine having that ability in your hands and not being able to reach it?” Buck Showalter, the Mets manager, said before the game.

An hour later, at 6:24 p.m., deGrom walked out of the Mets dugout and headed toward the bullpen, prompting an outpouring of cheers from a few dozen fans already in the ballpark. When he took the mound for the first time in the first inning, the number of fans had grown into the thousands and were applauding deGrom.

The Nationals’ only run against him came in the fourth inning, when Robles led off with a fly ball single and stole second base. He scored when Garcia drove a 99 mph fastball into the gap in right field. But deGrom escaped the rest of that inning and needed just eight pitches to get through the fifth.

Francisco Lindor singled in the top of the sixth, tying the score, 1-1, so DeGrom was not charged for the loss, a fate all too familiar for the slender right-hander in his years with the Mets, when he was great. Performances were wasted due to poor offensive support or faulty pitching. Over his final four seasons, deGrom’s earned run average was a remarkable 1.94, but his win-loss record was only 32-21.

The Mets hope that with a better team behind him and a closer, Edwin Díaz, who has been terrific this year, many of those unfortunate losses will turn into wins, especially in the postseason. After that comes more unknowns. DeGrom said he planned to opt out of his contract and become a free agent.

But for now, and the rest of the year, the Mets will be happy to consider him a great addition come trade deadline day.

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