NEW YORK — James of Grom don’t argue He doesn’t try to negotiate. When pitching coach Jeremy Hefner delivers the news about how many pitches the Mets will allow deGrom to throw in a start, deGrom simply accepts it. He understands what it would look like if he successfully lobbed for more and then got hurt again. So for now, deGrom is keeping quiet.
On Saturday, that meant pitching just six innings in a 1-0 win over the Phillies at Citi Field, despite having a near-hitter for the third time in three outings since returning from the injured list. It meant throwing just 76 pitches — the same amount he threw six days earlier against the Braves — and then watching from afar as relievers Seth Lugo, Trevor May and (an uncharacteristically shaky version of) Edwin Díaz did the rest.
Mets officials insist there will come a day later this season when deGrom’s restrictions will be lifted. deGrom himself believes it can happen within his next couple of starts.
For now, he is following the plan intended to keep him healthy until November.
“You want to be out there, but at the same time it took so long to get back,” deGrom said. “You don’t want to do anything to jeopardize being here because of the push we’re continuing and hopefully into the World Series.”
Saturday, that meant sanity for deGrom despite the continued effective excellence of the two-time Cy Young Award winner. After allowing a single to Rhys Hoskins in the first inning, deGrom retired 16 consecutive Phillies until Bryson Stott’s sixth-inning single, relying almost exclusively on his fastball and slider. Early in that stretch, deGrom struck out five batters in a row, displaying his usual insanity with a fastball that reached 102 mph and a slider that averaged 93 mph.
Since returning from the IL, deGrom has 28 strikeouts and one walk in 16 2/3 innings. His ERA is 1.62. His WHIP is 0.42. He allowed two earned runs or less in 22 consecutive home starts, a major league record. He is the only a pitcher in the modern era (since 1901) to produce a three-start stretch that saw him strike out at least 50 percent of batters while having four times as many strikeouts as base runners.
“He’s deGrom,” Stott said, as if that explained everything.
“He’s on another planet,” Díaz explained. “He’s the goat.”
Preventing runners from getting on base is an easy recipe for efficiency, so it was no surprise that deGrom was able to complete six innings in just 76 pitches. Nor was it a complete shock to see Lugo heat up almost immediately after deGrom left the field.
This has been the deal for deGrom since his long-awaited return on Aug. 2, when he threw 59 pitches in his first big league outing in more than a year. The Mets are stretching deGrom on the fly in the big leagues. More than that, they do it slowly. Typically in these situations, teams add one inning and approximately 15 pitches to a starter’s workload each rotation turn. The progression with deGrom was noticeably more conservative:
Start #1: 5 IP, 59 pitches
Start #2: 5 2/3 IP, 76 pitches
Start #3: 6 IP, 76 pitches
deGrom said the soft limit for him for Saturday’s start was 80 pitches, while for a typical starter it would be around 90. That’s a concession not only to deGrom’s injury history, which includes a long bout of right elbow inflammation last summer and a strain . reaction in his right shoulder blade this spring, but also to the fact that MLB innings are taxing. Because the Mets stretch deGrom at the highest level, they don’t have the benefit of giving him extra rest days between each start.
“Do I chain him?” manager Buck Showalter mused after the game. “I have a governor on him, how’s that? We will see. We will take each start as it comes.”
It helps Showalter’s reason that the Mets win, which affords him the luxury of caution. Although Phillies starter Aaron Nola was almost as sharp as deGrom on Saturday, Pete Alonso continued his career-long hit against Nola with an RBI single in the first inning. At the time, Alonso said, he didn’t expect one run to last. But deGrom remained unbeaten, Lugo continued his own strong midseason run and May looked dynamic in his highest-strength appearance since returning from injury.
The only late-game stress for the Mets came when Díaz walked two batters in the ninth en route to his 200th career save, snapping his run of 50 consecutive batters faced without a walk. It’s the kind of statistic that’s usually associated with deGrom — and it may be again if the Mets’ plan to keep him healthy works.
“I think it’s looking at the long-term goal here,” deGrom said. “You have to take a step back and try to be smart about it.”