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Jacob deGrom’s return proves to be a bright spot on a dark day

The team whiffed at the deadline and lost to the last-place Nationals, but at least deGrom is back in our lives.

MLB: New York Mets at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s ignore the negatives for a moment. I know this is hard to do as Mets fans, but indulge me if you will.

Yes, the Mets largely struck out at the trade deadline, failing to pick up a left-handed reliever or a true impact bat while contenders around them made significant moves to better position themselves for their respective World Series runs. Yes, the Mets fell 5-1 to the Nationals, a team that just traded its franchise cornerstone and was trotting out what could generously be referred to as a Triple-A lineup. Yes, the Braves defeated the Phillies, shaving a game off the Mets’ tenuous NL East lead.

All of that matters and should not be disregarded. But setting all that aside for a moment, last night was special for Mets fans, who got to celebrate Jacob deGrom’s return to the club after a series of injuries have kept him sidelined and kept Mets fans anxiously awaiting his re-emergence. 391 days after he last took the major league mound, deGrom rose from the ashes to stake his claim as the game’s best starting pitcher. I refuse to fall into the trap of the overused cliché that adding deGrom is akin to a big trade deadline acquisition, but it is still a momentous occasion and will undoubtedly help the franchise down the stretch. But more than that, deGrom is just a joy to watch, and baseball fandom is, at its core, supposed to be a fun and enjoyable experience.

It was a unique thrill getting to watch deGrom throw a pitch again. I did not anticipate the effect it would have on me emotionally until SNY honed in on deGrom exiting the dugout and taking the mound at National Park to a standing ovation from a sea of orange and blue. It felt both familiar and oddly novel watching the imposing, hard-throwing right-hander take the mound, rear back, and hurl a baseball at ungodly speeds towards home plate. In my head, the opening notes of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” played ceremoniously, a muscle memory reaction to watching deGrom warm up, as if the two entities are now inextricably linked.

As Gary Cohen waxed poetic about his past accomplishments and the impact of having the ace back with the club, especially following a lackluster trade deadline, one prevailing thought stuck in my mind: It absolutely sucks that we have been deprived of watching deGrom pitch for the past year. It is a year of greatness that we will never get back, and it’s unfair. It’s unfair to deGrom more than anyone, who has likely seen his chance at the Hall of Fame diminish greatly after losing 30 or so starts. But it sucks for the fans, who have been deprived of countless memories we could share with future generations of fans just by his absence.

Dating back to the 2020 season, even when he has been around, we’ve been unable to enjoy deGrom without holding their collective breath and waiting for the other shoe to drop David Capobianco already summed up the anxiety that has robbed fans of enjoying deGrom pitch, and his words ring truer now than ever. For a fanbase that has suffered for so long, it feels especially rude to rob us of being able to bask in the glow of deGrom’s majesty without this ever-present fear that his fragile body will fail him, and us as well.

So when he was ready to throw his first pitch shortly after 7:20pm, it was this mix of emotions—joy, fear, anxiety, sadness—that created a cocktail of confusion as I prepared for what would be the first live action of deGrom in a major league game since he hurled seven strong innings against the Brewers on July 7, 2021. That day, I took off from work and made my way to Citi Field solely to catch a glimpse of a legend in action, keenly unaware that it would be the last time I would see him perform that season. deGrom was predictably great, even as his club failed to score for him until the very last moment, depriving him of a win but getting one for the ballclub in the end on a Jeff McNeil walk-off in extras. A few days later, the team toyed with the idea of starting him on short rest prior to the All Star break. That idea never came to fruition, and nobody could have foreseen what would happen over the coming weeks and months. This is the deGrom experience that we have become accustomed to.

And then he threw his first pitch on Tuesday night, and it was a beauty. And then another pitch. And then, his third pitch clocked in at 101.6 miles-per-hour on the radar gun (rounded up to 102, as Cohen mentioned later in the contest). And he was deGrom again. Routinely brilliant, as the voice of the Mets has referred to him as. For a little over an hour, the anxiety and agita of the underwhelming trade deadline washed away, and with it the fear of the Braves breathing down the Mets’ backs. For one game, we got to just enjoy watching one of the best to ever do it.

He struck out four over the first two innings. And he faltered a bit in the fourth and allowed his first run of the year. That is to be expected for someone who has missed so much time and hadn’t reached five innings in a rehab game. He rebounded and finished five strong innings, needing only 59 pitches to dispatch of the Nationals. He struck out six, didn’t walk a batter, and surrendered three hits. So in other words, he was deGrom. In the dugout, he seemed pleased, smiling alongside his teammates, who appeared equally overjoyed to have their ace back. Post-game, he said he would pitch on regular rest against Atlanta on Sunday.

It’ll be hard to know if his optimism is warranted, because, as mentioned, every time deGrom starts a game, a creeping anxiety takes over that his previous pitch could be his last for a while. I’m sure he feels it, too, even if he won’t admit it. But that makes it all the more imperative that we cherish and enjoy every pitch he throws from here on out. Whether yesterday was his last start, or whether he makes 10 or 12 more this year, or whether he re-signs after opting out and remains in Queens for five more years, we must never forget how special it is to be able to watch deGrom pitch for our team.

Yesterday was fun. The end result was sub-optimal, but watching Jake on the mound again, glove in front of his face, staring down the opponent, knowing full well he’s better than them, was incredible. It was worth the wait. I just hope we won’t have to wait as long for the next one.