The New York City area has no shortage of must-see sporting events as a post-pandemic world begins to feel tangible.
The Islanders are trying to close out Nassau Coliseum — for the second time — by reaching the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 37 years. It only seemed that long since the Knicks won a playoff game, but the reaction after their lone victory in a first-round series against the Hawks — for the record, their first playoff win in a mere eight years — proved a third Knicks championship would unleash the biggest sporting party in the history of the Big Apple.
Nobody really cares about the Nets in these parts, but they’re the superteam everyone else is rooting against, so that makes them compelling. Even the surprisingly dull boredom of the Yankees is interesting, if for no other reason than it serves as a reminder of how many back pages and firings George Steinbrenner would have made in an attempt to shake up this dull and boring team.
But every five days, Jacob deGrom shoves them all off center stage, because as was proven again Friday night — when the Islanders and Nets were idle, thereby giving a singular talent the spotlight all to himself — every appearance he makes carries with it the promise of history as well as an omnipresent reminder of the fragility of his pursuit of unprecedented greatness.
deGrom and manager Luis Rojas said there was no reason to worry late Friday night, shortly after the Mets hung on to earn a 3-2 win in which deGrom threw six scoreless innings of one-hit ball and delivered what proved to be the game-winning two-run single before exiting with right flexor tendonitis.
“I’m not too concerned about it because it didn’t get much worse as the game went on,” said deGrom, who said he felt some discomfort in the flexor area in between starts. “But in the sixth inning when I was trying to warm up, I could feel it and it was tightening up a little bit.
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“But I’ve had a couple elbow issues before and I know what that feels like, so my level of concern is not too high. I’m pretty optimistic about it and I’m pretty sure it’s going to be something that we can treat and hopefully not miss any time.
deGrom underwent Tommy John surgery following his first season as a professional in 2010. Six years later, he had the ulnar nerve in his right elbow repositioned, which is a fairly common operation for Tommy John patients.
“I’m not concerned either, just because Jake is not,” Rojas said. “He expects to make his next start. I expect him to make his next start.”
The Mets inexplicably did not immediately administer an MRI Friday, though Rojas said an MRI was performed Saturday and that it came back clean. deGrom was seen throwing in the Citi Field bullpen and stretching before the middle game of a three-game series against the Padres, which would seem to keep him in line to start against the Cubs on Wednesday.
Still, even deGrom acknowledged Friday any sort of flexor ailment is a huge concern for any pitcher. Last year, flexor tendon injuries eventually led to Tommy John surgery for Chris Sale and Dakota Hudson. A flexor tendon injury in 2019 eventually resulted in a modified Tommy John surgery for Rich Hill, who earlier underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010.
“That’s the thing — whenever you say elbow anything for a pitcher everybody gets a little nervous about that,” deGrom said.
Especially when the pitcher is doing things that have no one alive has ever seen and will likely never be done again — and doing them while throwing a baseball as consistently hard as possible.
In becoming the first Mets pitcher to ever strike out at least 10 while facing the minimum over a start of at least six innings — Wil Myers singled with one out in the fifth before he was caught stealing — deGrom lowered his ERA to an incomprehensible 0.56 and his WHIP to 0.53, both of which are the lowest for a pitcher through 10 starts. His ERA has been below 1.00 for the last 55 innings.
His fourth-inning whiff of fellow MVP candidate Fernando Tatis gave deGrom 100 strikeouts in 61 2/3 innings, the fastest any pitcher has reached 100 strikeouts since the mound was moved to 60 feet, 6 inches in 1893.
And in the final season before the universal DH is likely implemented, deGrom ensured he’d win by producing his own run support with a two-run single off Blake Snell in the fifth. He has more RBIs (five) than earned runs allowed (four). It is June 12.
“Jake’s from another planet,” closer Edwin Diaz said.
The Baseball-Reference page says DeLand, Florida, so we’ll assume for now Diaz is being hyperbolic. But the history of mere mortals throwing baseballs this hard suggests deGrom is in territory equally unchartered and dangerous.
deGrom, who turns 33 next week, has thrown 128 pitches at 100 mph or higher this season and, per FanGraphs, is leading the bigs in average fastball velocity among starters at 99.2 mph — almost six mph faster than as a rookie in 2014. He also led starters last season at 98.6 mph.
Between 2016 and 2019, deGrom’s teammate, Noah Syndergaard and fellow Big Apple ace Luis Severino each led the majors twice in average fastball velocity among starting pitchers. Both underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2020.
The late Yordano Ventura, who was killed in a car crash in January 2017, led big league starters in velocity in 2014 and 2015, when the pitchers behind him were Garrett Richards and Matt Harvey, respectively. Richards underwent Tommy John surgery in 2019 while Harvey in 2015 was in his first season back following Tommy John surgery he underwent in October 2013 — just after leading the majors in average fastball velocity among starters.
The explanation for deGrom’s early exit merely served as a verbalization of what was previously understood and unstated as Friday night unfolded and a full-for-the-pandemic-era Citi Field roared and everyone in the stands and on the field was thinking no-hitter or perfect game from the first pitch: There’s a finite nature to deGrom’s historical dominance.
There will be more springtime runs by the local hockey and basketball teams, and eventually the Yankees will be both good and interesting again. But even in the short-term best-case scenario for deGrom — his right arm is fine, he picks up where he left off Wednesday and has no more notable speed bumps along the way to winning the Cy Young and MVP while all but locking up a spot in Cooperstown — how many more nights like Friday can be expected?
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about it,” deGrom said about a no-hitter or perfect game after he’d retired the first 13 batters. “Throwing a no-hitter or perfect game is definitely a goal. Just haven’t been able to do it.”
See those bids while we — and he — still can.