NEW YORK — On Friday night, as the New York Mets were beating the Washington Nationals at Citi Field, I sent former Mets pitcher Frank Viola a text.
“Is this the best you’ve ever seen him?”
I was talking about Jacob deGrom, whom Viola knows well because he coached him in the minors years ago. When I sent the text, deGrom had already set a Major League Baseball record for most strikeouts over the first four starts of the season with 50, passing Shane Bieber (48 this season) and Nolan Ryan (48 in 1978). The ace had also struck out a career-high 15 batters and was in the midst of what became the second complete-game shutout of his career.
In a couple of moments, Viola sent this response: “Just another game. He’s that special.”
At this point, deGrom is amazing and baffling at the same time. We all probably ask ourselves the same question: How does the best keep getting better?
Friday might have been the best start of his career as he pitched a two-hitter to lead the Mets to a 6-0 victory over the Nationals. It was, without question, one of the best pitching performances in franchise history, but what made it better was deGrom also matched his opponent’s hit total with two of his own, including an RBI double.
“He has to be from a different planet because he does things that seem out of this world,” outfielder Brandon Nimmo said.
“We’re witnessing something special,” manager Luis Rojas said.
“It’s a special, special, special day,” said Tomás Nido, who had the honor of catching the masterpiece.
As deGrom warmed up before the game, he noticed his stuff was really good — almost too good. “That made me a little nervous because I think some of my best starts, I’ve barely thrown strikes down there (in the bullpen),” he said. He soon took the mound and began firing bullets toward the strike zone while pinpointing them wherever he wanted.
By the third batter of the night, Nido thought, “OK, you can really tell that it’s going to be something special tonight.” DeGrom struck out two Nationals in the first inning, two in the second, then two more in the third. He only needed seven innings to set a new career high in strikeouts because he struck out the side in the sixth and seventh innings.
DeGrom, who didn’t walk anyone, threw 109 pitches, 84 for strikes. He hit 101 mph on his fastball, which averaged 99 over this outing. He also used his devastating slider and changeup.
DeGrom had it all on Friday. Facing a Nationals lineup without Juan Soto — one of baseball’s best hitter — deGrom made his opponent look like a minor-league club.
“You can tell they’re frustrated,” Nido said of the Nationals’ reactions. “They’re all trying to make adjustments, but there comes a point in time when you just have to tip your cap and realize you’re facing the best pitcher in the game. He just has unhittable stuff.”
DeGrom, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, competes with what he did five days before. Somehow, he continues outdoing himself.
How is that even possible when he’s already elite to begin with?
“It goes down to just one pitch at a time. That’s how I concentrate on a game,” deGrom said. “Hit my spot, if you end up missing it, so what, you’ve got to make the next pitch. But it’s that focus on that pitch that you’re about to throw, that’s what you can control. The previous games, those are over with, try not to think about them, and now it’s preparing for the next one.”
“I don’t think I can totally comprehend it because, to be honest with you, there are only a handful of people that are that good,” Nimmo said. “He definitely is in a league of his own.”
“It’s hard to believe that it’s going to happen again and again,” Rojas said.
As deGrom mowed down the Nationals, his offense remained silent. This has been the narrative throughout his prime: The Mets can’t win deGrom’s starts.
In the fifth inning, he stepped up to the plate and aided his cause with an RBI double off counterpart Erick Fedde to open the scoring. Minutes later, deGrom showcased his athleticism as he scored from second on Nimmo’s hard-hit, two-run single to right field.
When deGrom went to bat in the sixth, the crowd chanted: “MVP! MVP! MVP!” It chant continued throughout the rest of the night in an electric atmosphere.
One of the loudest roars came in the eighth inning when deGrom left the dugout for the on-deck circle, signaling that he would pitch the ninth, too. He rewarded the fans with a single.
“If (pitchers are) going to be in the lineup, I feel like we might as well be a threat and try to do our best and put good swings on the ball,” said deGrom.
Added Nimmo on deGrom’s overall performance: “He just commanded the whole game. He changed the game. He single-handedly won and changed the game. … He was just in such control and so dominant.”
Perhaps the good fortune began Thursday when deGrom flew out of Chicago hours before his team played the Cubs. He usually doesn’t like to fly out early but did this time because with a night game at Wrigley Field, he knew the team would probably get back late. He guessed correctly, as some teammates got back to their homes at 5 a.m. Friday.
Not long after, everyone witnessed a masterful performance.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the most impressive part about deGrom’s magnificent start to the 2021 season.
Is it that aforementioned strikeout record? Maybe the MLB-leading 0.31 ERA? The fact he’s hitting .545 and has more RBI (two) than earned runs allowed (one)?
We are witnessing greatness.
Someday, we’ll tell our grandkids we watched deGrom pitch.
“It’s unbelievable,” Rojas said. “Everyone in there is excited to be part of this team and be witnessing what Jake is doing out there every time he gets the ball.”
The ace turns 33 in June, but he’s still entrenched in his prime. At this rate, with deGrom showing no signs of slowing down, that period could last much longer than anyone envisioned.
How will he top this brilliant performance?
No one knows. But he’ll find a way. He always does.
“He is someone,” Nimmo said, “that I am totally in awe of right now.”
Justin Toscano is the Mets beat writer for NorthJersey.com.