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He Who Smiles Last

Perhaps Jacob deGrom [1] struck a shady deal with the Devil at a forlorn crossroads one night … and didn’t look carefully enough at the fine print.

You see where this is going. Any pitcher would sign over his soul — or at least a good chunk of his discretionary income — in exchange for pitching at least six innings and giving up two runs or less in every start. It’s only later that such a pitcher might think, Dang, I should have asked about run support.

DeGrom has appeared in 19 games this year. The Mets are averaging 3.6 runs in his starts. They’ve scored 12 runs for him once, in Colorado. (Surprise!) Twice they’ve scored eight runs, six and five. Then the problems emerge: the Mets have scored three runs for deGrom four times, two twice, one three times and none at all three times. That’s how you can be leading the league with a Goodenesque 1.68 ERA and be 5-4 on the year.

You probably knew all that. What the numbers miss is just how ludicrously good deGrom has looked for long stretches of this season. On Wednesday night the Phillies — the first-place Phillies — looked simply helpless against him. They’re not alone: DeGrom has four plus pitches, impeccable location, and a Seaveresque ability to both outthink enemy batters and overpower them. To get to him, you have to guess what he’s going to throw, where he’s going to throw it, make the adjustment from what he threw last and where he threw it, and then actually hit what’s coming your way.

It’s too tall an order a lot of the time … and yet deGrom’s excellence often winds up surprising me. Part of it is that he’s tall and skinny and frankly gentle-looking, lacking the sheer physical presence and gunfighter stare of Noah Syndergaard [2] or prelapsarian Matt Harvey [3]. His pitches don’t lend themselves to jaw-dropping GIFs and amused/amazed head-shakes. But he doesn’t need to look scary or have an arsenal that lends itself to memes. To appreciate him, you have to watch the progression of pitches, at-bats and innings. Yes, he can overpower hitters if he has to. But he usually doesn’t need to — he disarms them before reaching that situation.

The best plan facing deGrom when he’s on is to wait for some other Met to fail. Unfortunately, that’s been a sound strategy for much of this woeful year. The bats will do little or nothing, and eventually the defense will stagger, the bullpen will falter, and deGrom will trudge up the clubhouse tunnel with his expression carefully blank.

That was the blueprint Wednesday night: deGrom was untouchable for eight innings, but the Mets weren’t touching anything either. Their tally through eight: an Amed Rosario [4] single, a Wilmer Flores [5] single, an enemy error that allowed recidivist Met Matt den Dekker [6] to go to first, walks to Michael Conforto [7] and Rosario, and an intentional pass to Asdrubal Cabrera [8]. When deGrom headed up the tunnel with another no-decision, no Met had reached third.

With deGrom gone, I braced myself for another miserable loss, to be followed by clubhouse stoicism and trade rumors. You probably did too. But somehow that didn’t happen. Rosario doubled with two out in the 10th against Mark Leiter [9] Jr., Jose Reyes [10] (who’d short-circuited a Phillie threat with a heads-up play to catch Andrew Knapp [11], um, napping) walked, and Brandon Nimmo [12] blasted Leiter’s first pitch over the right-field fence.

It all happened in a minute or two — the Mets went from needing a mirror held up to their collective mouth to being winners [13]. (Robert Gsellman [14] now has six wins, which I hope deGrom can laugh about.) Nimmo floated around the bases with his trademark grin even bigger than usual, was greeted with a shower of gum (ouch), and immediately thanked the fans, because he’s Brandon Nimmo. In connecting with one pitch, he collected as many bases as the Mets had recorded via hits all night.

The Mets, weirdly, have secured their last three wins via walk-off homers: Jose Bautista [15] beat the Rays [16] last Friday, Flores welcomed Larry to the ballpark [17] against the Phils on Monday, and Nimmo was the hero Wednesday night. Which suggests the possibility of another deal with the Devil. What if we got to hit three walk-offs a week? The fans would love that, right?

Well yeah, they probably wouldn’t object. But the suspicious among those fans might also ask about the rest of the week and suggest a careful look at the fine print.