Like Red on the bus to Fort Hancock, Tex., in The Shawshank Redemption, I found I was so excited at Citi Field as the Mets game wore on Wednesday night, I could barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it was the excitement only a Mets fan could feel, a Mets fan at the end of a long journey whose conclusion is certain.
We knew our team wasn’t going anywhere in the traditional sense. We’ve known that for months. Yet we were rolling along, late in an otherwise lost season, clinging to a purpose all our own: meeting our friend Jake in Zihuatanejo, where we hoped to find him buffing and polishing his Cy Young Award.
We hoped. And we made it, I’m pretty sure .
If we can keep two thoughts in our head, it’s that 1) you can keep the Mets’ 2018; and 2) they can’t take Jacob deGrom ’s 2018 away from us. A great individual campaign executed as part and parcel of a team’s quest for greater glory doesn’t take much understanding. As illustrious as Doc Gooden’s oft-referenced 1985 was, you almost didn’t fully appreciate it while it ensued because you always kept one eye on the out-of-town scoreboard to track what the Cardinals were doing. Doc was other-worldly, no question, but so were Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez and Darryl Strawberry, and we didn’t limit our immersion in what they and their teammates were doing to one night out of every five.
By contrast, Jacob pitching practically on his own has represented a phenomenon in a vacuum. Four nights out of every five, no disrespect to any other Met starting pitcher of the moment, we’re just slobs on the couch looking up from our phones from time to time. On the fifth night — culminating in the fifth-to-last night of 2018, as it turned out — we’re puttin’ on our top hat, tyin’ up our white tie, brushin’ off our tails. We’re the belle of the ball, the toast of the Met Gala. Everybody playing in deGrom’s orchestra strives to look sharp and tries to hit notes higher than they are accustomed to reaching. They don’t want to let down their conductor. Neither do we.
One could imagine the post-fete dialogue as we temporary Cinderellas return to our humdrum existences.
“Where’ve you been?”
“At the Mets game. It was magical!”
“The Mets? Don’t they suck?”
“Not when deGrom is pitching.”
“So they won?”
You’d have to be a Mets fan, a Mets fan in 2018, to understand. You’d have to be a Mets fan to understand what it means to show up on a late September night, threat of rain in the forecast, to sit outside and treat the 158th game the fourth-place Mets were mandated to play as if it was the 32nd game of a six-month World Series. We had to make Jake’s going-away party the best it could be. We knew Jake would. We didn’t know if he would win or if the Mets would win, but we knew there was no way any of us could lose.
Jacob deGrom has spent 2018 redefining for us what a great season looks like. If you’ve grown up reciting sets of numbers like 25-and-7 and grown older pairing it with 24-and-4, you’ve trained yourself to reflexively dismiss plebian digits like 10-and-9. Or 9-and-9. Or 8-and-9. Yet in 2018, as informed as our habits may have been by the successes of Seaver and Gooden at their winningest, we learned how much beauty can blossom if you have the sense to peek beyond the most obvious, least revealing numerals.
Nothing about deGrom’s already resplendent season was going to look substantively different whether or not Jake “beat the Braves” on Wednesday night. We still use that kind of language. He beat them; they beat him. One man versus nine batters, as if the game is designed for the pitcher to control every possibly outcome, including that which is memorialized in the standings every morning. As silly as it sounds, we’ve institutionally bought into it forever. Even if we let our logic flag fly in theory, we’d rally around the W’s if there were enough of them for a couple of minyans. Six Septembers ago, when the Mets were similarly closer to last place than first, we flocked to Citi Field to urge R.A. Dickey on to his 20th win. It’s not like we didn’t already know wins were of limited utility in measuring the full effectiveness of a pitcher, but we finally had somebody sitting on 19 of them and, goddammit, we wanted that 20th for him and us.
This September, within the context of deGrom and the Cy we seek in his name, 10 sort of became of the new 20 — though even that formulation is a reach. We knew when Jake’s won-lost record was 8-9 that it didn’t reflect his truth. How would 10-9 somehow certify that the best pitcher in the sport had gotten exponentially better over a span of less that two weeks? It wouldn’t, but superficiality doesn’t probe that deeply. We wanted Jake to have the best possible record, no matter how ultimately pointless a pitching metric “record” is.
For generations we dwelled unquestioningly in the valley of decisions. Wins. Losses. No-decisions either desperately bargained for or grudgingly accepted as the cost of doing business. It’s been the hardest of habits to break. I don’t know that we’ll ever fully rid ourselves of the inclination to overvalue the W’s and cringe too hard at the L’s. As long as the former is available, we will want them for our pitchers. As long as the latter loom as possibilities, we will recoil at their intrusion. And we’ll still treat no-decisions as fickly as we can, welcoming or resenting them on a purely situational basis.
Jacob deGrom is a winner in practically every inning he pitches, the victor in virtually every mano-a-mano in which he’s engaged. Evaluating him by the game seems inadequate. Seaver and Gooden and others threw great games. DeGrom prevails batter after batter after batter. You’re surprised when somebody reaches base. You’re shocked when anybody comes around to score. In the universe he has created, the aberration upsets your soul. The stray RBI hit stands out as the act of a vandal. Madison Bumgarner, Lewis Brinson, Brock Holt…they might as well have been the Scioscias and Pendletons of the sputtering summer of 2018. They didn’t knock the Mets perilously off stride amid a pennant push. They didn’t rewrite the narrative of a would-be world champion.
No, they had the temerity to tick Jacob deGrom’s earned run average ever so slightly upward. When that would happen, we were all Ralph Branca burying our face in the nearest cement staircase.
Yet not for long, because Jake was resilient, taking on another batter and another inning and emerging victorious in those encounters. It showed up everywhere in the box score except maybe where they print the W’s…which should be marked as a loss for the win, because it simply doesn’t reflect the greatness of deGrom.
Wednesday night was for the fans who hadn’t had enough of the 2018 Mets and couldn’t get enough of 2018 Jacob deGrom. Those of us who showed up at Citi Field (a dedicated cohort that included Jason and me if not tens and tens of thousands of others) received an evening that reflected accurately everything that has made deGrom synonymous with greatness. There was a Brave base hit to begin the game. There was another to begin the second inning.
And that was it where Brave hitting not to mention walking was concerned. One Brave got to first on a wild pitch and misguided heave after a strikeout, but he didn’t stay long. Jacob, ever the maestro, saw the runner, Ronald Acuña, had rounded first as the ball Devin Mesoraco flung had trickled away. The pitcher directed Jeff McNeil to throw to first, where Dom Smith tagged him out, thus transforming the evening’s only audible groan into a cheer.
Jacob struck out ten Braves in eight innings. The tenth was the thousandth of his career, which seemed to make the pitcher uncommonly happy. Good for him — he should be happy enough so that we can pick up on it. What Jay Bruce said about deGrom after his previous start, that he’s “very, very boring in the best way possible,” extends to his answers about how very, very excellent he is in the best way possible. Jake’s affable as all get out, cooperating to the fullest extent of politeness with every inquiry of what it was like out there tonight, et al, but his responses generally don’t change speeds like his pitches do. Yes, he felt good. Sure, he’d like to have won. No, he can only control so much and looks forward to his next start.
I didn’t realize until the video boards flashed the bulletin that Jake had been one strikeout away from 1,000 when he fired the last of his 2018 pitches past Ozzie Albies. He sure knew, though. No. 1,000 brought the biggest smile I’ve seen from him since he lowered Daniel Murphy’s chair while Murph attempted to address the media at Dodger Stadium during the 2015 NLDS. He was sneaky fast after the game that night, just as he was overwhelming during the game that preceded it.
Jake was a really good pitcher in 2014 and 2015, pretty darn beguiling even when dogged by injury in 2016. He was among the best anywhere in 2017. And he’s gotten better. He was more or less at the top of his craft by the All-Star break and has improved since then. Not only was it fitting that he walked off the mound for presumably the final time this year on a strikeout that left Albies looking at air, it was apropos that the called strike three made it twenty consecutive batters making an out. DeGrom may have been one start away from throwing a perfect game. Or one month away from throwing a perfect month.
For a change of pace, he had help. McNeil didn’t require deGrom pointing which way to go in the seventh when on the hardest-hit Brave ball of the night, off the bat of the perennially treacherous Ender Inciarte, Jeff dove into the middle of the diamond and snagged the closest thing Atlanta would manage to a base hit post-second inning. And two Mets — Smith and Michael Conforto — conjured actual offense. Conforto doubled down the right field line in the sixth and Smith singled him home for a 1-0 lead. In the eighth, Conforto rearranged the deck chairs on the Citi Pavilion, the branded seating area just south of Shea Bridge. One out later, Smith went opposite field for another solo homer.
It was 3-0, Mets, yet the crowd soon expressed its displeasure. Not for the score but for the on-deck circle, where Bruce stood instead of deGrom. One-hundred ten pitches were in the books. We’d see no more of Jacob on the mound. When the perfectly likable and usually effective Seth Lugo came trotting out of the bullpen in advance of the ninth, we booed. Nothing personal, Seth. Surely you understand.
Three outs later, we and Jake got his 10th win of the season. A perfect 10th. Incidental to the other numbers, to be sure. The strikeout total had topped out at 269, one more than Doc K’d in 1985, fourth-most in Mets history. The ERA had plunged to 1.70, six-hundredths less than Tom posted in 1971, second-best in Mets history. It took me a while to realize why 1.70 seemed so familiar. It eventually registered that 1.70 was Tug McGraw’s ERA in 1971 and 1972, the seasons that established him as one of the best relievers in the league, the seasons that made his struggles through most of 1973 so unbelievable. Tug put up his twin 1.70’s a little bit at a time, albeit with a workload that a modern closer couldn’t comprehend: 111 IP in ’71, 106 IP in ’72. Over two seasons and 217 innings, in 105 appearances (one of them a start), Tug could hardly be touched.
Jacob deGrom threw exactly that many innings in 2018, 217. After that one game on May 2 when he left after four with a hyperextended elbow (and we all hyperventilated) and the game after that when he test-drove the elbow for one excruciatingly stressful inning (45 pitches, three walks, no runs), he never stayed out there less than six innings. Just one complete game, which is a shame for the romantics among us, but in contemporary baseball we understand how closely managers and coaches count pitches. During eleven August and September starts, Jacob never threw fewer than 98 of them. The earned run average that dazzled at 1.68 in advance of the All-Star break barely budged.
We’ve got stats in our eyes when it comes to Jacob deGrom. The Mets media department transmitted a sheath of notes attesting to his achievements a little more than half-an-hour after the ink had dried on them. Some, but not all, are…
• Three runs or fewer allowed in 29 consecutive starts
• 24 consecutive quality starts
• Allowed one or no runs in 18 starts
• ERA of 0.88 in six starts versus the division champion Braves
• Only season in modern major league history to encompass at least 260 strikeouts, 50 or fewer walks, 10 or fewer home runs allowed and a sub-2.00 ERA.
And so on.
The statistics do neatly encapsulate his case for the Cy Young, if that’s your priority. Who are we kidding? Of course we want it for him and us, and it seems highly likely he’ll be collecting it come November. What’s at least as rewarding as any award, however, is the feeling we got from Jacob deGrom pitching. Anytime, any start, but especially Wednesday night in his last start if you were at Citi Field.
It wasn’t just the season Jake had. It was the season the Mets had. One of those seasons. You didn’t need a reason to remain on top of things in 1969 when Tom was going 25-7 and the Mets were en route to 100-62 and so much more. You didn’t need to explain yourself to yourself as Doc was building up to 24-4 in service to the Mets pulling up just short of a division title at 98-64. Empty seats were the exception in those Septembers. This September, they are in abundance. Even last night they were plentiful. But those of us filling the minority of Citi’s chairs…we got it. We got Jake. We got what it means to have one Met excel regardless of what the other Mets have been doing.
Conforto. McNeil. Rosario. Nimmo and, on a good night, Smith. If you squint, you can almost make out a team around Jake. Don’t look too closely at center field or third base. Imagine a catcher who can do more than receive. Dream of a bullpen you aren’t by instinct moved to boo. Yet the Mets have been getting incrementally less bad as a rule. No longer does it seem Jacob and the rest of the rotation would be better off hiring their own hitters and taking off on a barnstorming tour. No longer does Jake necessarily resemble a Big Brother graciously volunteering his time with the neighborhood kids, stepping off the rubber and watching them try their best despite knowing that they’ll never really get the hang of the sport he mastered many moons ago.
When a season of overall disappointment winds down, we Mets fans who seek out nights like Jacob deGrom’s final start can’t say what the next season will bring for the team, but we can isolate what has been most special about the season somehow still in progress, expressing our appreciation forcefully and reveling in it jubilantly. No question we’d go last night. No wonder we stood and applauded as long as we could. No wonder we remained giddy as we departed, arrival of that anticipated rain be damned. As with Jake getting batters out, it’s just what we do, it’s just how we are.