September 29, 2022

With Deesha Thosar
FOX Sports MLB Writer

WASHINGTON — About 24 hours before his season debut, Jacob deGrom she appeared anxious in the confines of the visitor’s club at Nationals Park.

He walked from one room to another, then stood at his locker, looked around and looked a little flustered before picking up his glove from his chair and getting back into motion.

It was a nervous energy that stood out because the rest of his Mets teammates were relaxed, sitting at their lockers and looking at advance reports or eating in the dining room. The difference was significant. It was another day with another game for the Mets. For deGrom, it was his first time on the mound in 391 days. He expected to be nervous, and those feelings seemed to emerge a day before the big occasion we were expecting.

Then it was time of year. DeGrom exited the dugout to a standing ovation and picked up where he left off a year ago. His first pitch since July 7, 2021 was a 99 mph fastball to Victor Robles that fell in for a strike. His third pitch of the night was a 102 mph warmup. A short while later, he struck out Robles on six pitches.

The nervous energy from the day before didn’t show on the mound. He struck out six batters, gave up three hits and yes, proving he’s human, he allowed one run on 59 pitches and five innings in the Mets’ 5-1 loss to the Nationals on Tuesday night.

“It’s what I expect from him,” Mets pitching coach Jeremy Hefner said. “He’s arguably the best pitcher of our generation.”

This was the deGrom the Mets knew and the deGrom the Mets expected when they supplemented the best pitcher in baseball with a three-time Cy Young Award winner in November. The Mets had a vision when they shocked the baseball world and signed Max Scherzer to a record three-year, $130 million contract. No one articulated that vision better than the team’s multi-billionaire owner.

“Now we get to pair Max with one of the other great pitchers of the generation, Jacob deGrom,” Steve Cohen said in a Dec. 1 press conference. “I told you last year I wanted to win and I talked about winning consistently and winning championships and I mean it.”

Mets’ Jacob de Grom throws six strikeouts in his return against the Nationals

Mets' Jacob de Grom throws six strikeouts in his return against the Nationals

Jacob deGrom of the New York Mets threw six hits, including a 102 mph fastball against the Washington Nationals.

For a while there, that vision was starting to look like a fantasy. DeGrom and Scherzer showcased this generational talent in spring training, playing against each other in a Grapefruit League game in March that only created further expectations for the damage they could do together in the Mets’ rotation. But it was short-lived.

DeGrom went down in late March with a stress reaction in his right shoulder blade. He was suspended for four weeks. During a prudent rehab, it became clear that deGrom would not return until the Mets were well into the second half of their season.

Nine months after the Mets signed Scherzer — and in doing so, declared they would win a World Series sometime in the next three years — the organization’s vision became a reality. Their 1-2 punch of Scherzer and deGrom arrived on the scene four months after they intended, but it finally materialized, and with it, it brought promise. Now, it’s up to the teammates to prove if they were worth the wait.

“It felt good,” deGrom said after his season debut. “Going out there and playing and being healthy, that’s the reward.”

Scherzer, in deGrom’s 102-game absence, held up his end of the bargain in his first year in Queens. Including his outing against the Nationals on Monday, in which he struck out five and earned his seventh win of the year, Scherzer has a 2.13 ERA and .925 WHIP in 14 starts this season. The Mets were able to overcome Scherzer’s seven-week absence due to an oblique strain and maintain their lead in first place in the NL East.

The team’s ability to hold off the surging Atlanta Braves — while Scherzer and deGrom were on the shelf — was a Herculean effort, and one that catapulted their chances of making the playoffs for the first time in five years. But from here on out, the Mets’ chance for a long postseason run depends on the health of deGrom and Scherzer.

“Having those two guys on the same side is awesome,” Pete Alonso said of deGrom and Scherzer. “I’m excited about what these guys can do moving down.”

There are still so many unknowns. The Mets cannot immediately commit that deGrom will return to a regular five-day schedule after his successful season debut on Tuesday. DeGrom said he felt good enough to do it, and if he does, he’ll be ready to face the Braves Sunday at Citi Field in the series finale of a crucial four-game set between the division rivals.

Then there’s the matter of his arm strength and whether he can handle the accelerated workload between now and, the Mets hope, through October. There’s also the question of whether his high velocity — 16 of deGrom’s first 22 pitches Tuesday were in triple digits — will lead to another injury.

DeGrom has repeatedly said he will opt out of his contract and become a free agent this offseason. While it’s easy to see Cohen opening a blank check and giving deGrom whatever he wants, a lot has to happen between now and then. Of paramount importance to these 2022 Mets is winning the NL pennant and then the championship, and it’s hard to imagine that goal being accomplished without their homegrown ace.

For now, the Mets will try to enjoy the ride, holding their breath that a deGrom shoulder twitch or slight twinge is a routine reaction, rather than signaling something bigger or something worse. For now, the 1-2 punch the Mets signed and dreamed of has finally arrived. And that is something to be enjoyed.

“Obviously a really good pitcher coming back out there,” Buck Showalter said. “Now the challenge is keeping him out there. It’s hard to do. You build that type of arm speed, some people can do it better than others. There are things you have to stay on top of.”

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the Mets for three and a half seasons as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. He never misses a Rafael Nadal match, no matter what country or time zone he plays in (sleep can always be sacrificed for sports). Follow her on Twitter at @Deesha Thosar.

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