Jacob deGrom subtly shook his head as his concerned catcher approached the mound, as his concerned trainer headed out from the dugout. We have all been there in the middle of a suddenly bad day at the office, so no thought bubble was required to know exactly what the ace was thinking.
No words were needed to figure out the one and only question deGrom was asking himself.
Are you bleepin’ kidding me?
He had missed a start with inflammation in his right lat, and had taken 10 days off to cool it down. The Mets were carrying a 2-1 lead over Arizona into the sixth inning after deGrom had minimized the bases-loaded damage in a fifth-inning mess of his own design. And now he was feeling tightness in a different area on his right side, in his lower back, enough to make the city hold its collective breath.
It was Mother’s Day, and the Mets were playing with pink bats, pink gloves, pink ribbons, pink compression sleeves, pink everything. A great day to be at a great ballpark, Citi Field, until James McCann caught a deGrom warm-up pitch, rose from his crouch and motioned toward the dugout that help was needed on the mound. DeGrom himself had signaled for assistance, never a good sign.
A meeting of invested parties, including trainer Brian Chicklo, was held between the rubber and the plate, and the decision was made to call it a day. DeGrom walked off the field with his head down. He stepped into the dugout, took a pat on the back, and disappeared down the same tunnel where Francisco Lindor and Jeff McNeil had fought over rats and raccoons, before eventually heading off to get an MRI exam.
“We were debating,” said manager Luis Rojas, “and it wasn’t worth taking the risk.”
It’s never worth taking a risk with the game’s most dominant pitcher. No matter what that MRI says, the Mets need to shut down deGrom for his own good, and put him on the injured list. They need to protect Jacob deGrom the franchise player from Jacob deGrom the competitor.
Truth is, this second injury shouldn’t come as any surprise. As much as deGrom makes it look easy, the human body isn’t built to deliver 100-mph fastballs over and over again, without there being consequences sooner or later.
Sooner edged out later Sunday when deGrom exited stage left. He had struggled in the fifth. He had surely tired himself out earlier when displaying the kind of athleticism you rarely see from a starting pitcher, dropping down a bunt in the third that he beat out for a base hit, and moving from second to third on Lindor’s sacrifice fly to left to put himself in no-doubt-about-it position to score on Michael Conforto’s two-out single.
DeGrom leads all major league starters with seven hits. He also leads the league in bad luck.
Usually that bad luck comes in the form of run support, or lack thereof. This time it came in the form of human frailty.
During that on-field meeting, deGrom was wondering aloud if he could rub some dirt on his lower back and pitch through it. This was his game, his chance to sweep the Diamondbacks, his chance to extend the Mets’ winning streak to five.
“We don’t want to take the risk right now,” Rojas wisely told him. And that was that.
Maybe the Mets should have waited longer than they did to throw deGrom back out there, maybe not. The franchise’s record in dealing with injuries is not exactly spotless. Either way, it was fitting that the skies darkened after deGrom left the game. An ominous feeling settled over the Citi Field crowd, which surely sees a National League East that is there for the taking, and a roster capable of winning a postseason round for the first time since the Mets reached the 2015 World Series.
But all of that is contingent on deGrom remaining as durable as he’s been since his rookie year of 2014, 3 ¹/₂ years after Tommy John surgery. The good news is the Mets competed like crazy when deGrom was on the hill, and when he wasn’t. One outfielder (Conforto) crashed against the fence after making a catch, and two (Conforto and Kevin Pillar) sold out on headfirst dives for the same ball in the gap. One reliever (Jacob Barnes) won a 16-pitch, 11-foul-ball battle, and another (Edwin Diaz) nailed down a five-out save with three strikeouts in the ninth.
“They have each other’s back,” Rojas said.
Now the Mets need to have Jacob deGrom’s back. No matter what the MRI says, or what the competitor wants, give the ace a much-needed break in May for the sake of what might come in the fall.