Jacob deGrom is finally back, and the Mets now have a pair of aces for their march toward October

WASHINGTON — He threw hard and the team gave him insufficient run support, it was a classic Jacob deGrom start on Tuesday night in the nation’s capital.

Three hundred ninety-one days after he last pitched in a major league game, and just over an hour after the trade deadline remade the MLB landscape, perhaps nowhere more than in D.C., the man who was the unequivocal Best Pitcher in Baseball last time he stood on a mound started for the New York Mets. He was nervous, like even more than normal.

His first pitch came in at 99 mph and by the time he struck out the leadoff hitter, Victor Robles, on a slider, deGrom was up to triple digits. In five innings of work, he threw 59 pitches, of which 13 were over 100 mph. It wasn’t until after the first inning that it fully hit him: He’s back.

“To get out there and pitch and be healthy, that’s the reward,” deGrom said postgame.

It was one day after Max Scherzer, to whom the Mets awarded the highest-ever average annual value contract in the offseason, started against his former club. Finally, they have the one-two punch they planned on, the one that'll be the envy and the nightmare of Major League Baseball.

For the first half of 2021, it looked like deGrom was a lock for his third Cy Young award — he still ended up garnering a couple votes despite pitching fewer than 100 innings — and maybe even an MVP. He didn’t have an ERA over 1.00 until a start on July 7, when he gave up two runs in seven innings. The Mets led the division that day. It was his last appearance for over a year. The Mets missed the postseason.

What was first deemed just a sore forearm proved to be a sprained UCL that kept him out for the rest of the season, as his team slipped through the standings.

But a disappointing end to last year and a labor fight-prolonged offseason gave way to giddy expectations as the Mets reported to spring training remade from slapstick sideshow into serious contenders, anchored by their pair of aces. That lasted until deGrom was shut down with a stress reaction in his right scapula.

Cut to now: The Mets, who were also without Scherzer for a stretch, have a tenuous 2.5-game lead in the NL East and the second-best record in franchise history through 102 games. Their famously long-suffering, hope-adverse fans showed up in droves to dominate Nationals Park and give deGrom a series of swelling ovations.

It’s low-hanging analysis to say deGrom was the Mets’ biggest deadline acquisition — but you kinda have to, considering the timing and the fact they refrained from doing anything else splashy.

New general manager Billy Eppler chalked up their conservative approach to “organizational discipline” in a post-deadline Zoom with reporters. To some fans’ dismay, the Mets — who, admittedly, topped most offseason acquisitions rankings — added only a DH platoon of Darin Ruf and Daniel Vogelbach, lefty outfielder Tyler Naquin and a middle reliever in Mychal Givens. Eppler stressed the reliance on predictive modeling to weigh immediate gains against the impact on future postseason probabilities.

And so, despite coming close in the left-handed relief market and fielding inquiries elsewhere, “everything that presented itself just took too much of that future away.”

You could argue that owner Steven Cohen’s winter spending spree left fans spoiled. But that ignores how difficult, and lucky, it is to get to this point: first place heading into the stretch, with an overwhelmingly healthy team and an ace returning from the IL instead of getting forced onto it. DeGrom has maintained his intention to opt out of his current contract with the Mets — the market for a 34-year-old with a live arm that’s also a liability will be fascinating — at the end of the season. So if they’re going to win a World Series — or, hell, even get back to the postseason — with him, they need to do it this year. Hopefully the team they had in his first start back is enough to get them there.

They lost the game, by the way. Limited to 5 innings of one-run ball in his return, deGrom was let down by the bullpen and lack of offense. Facing a Nationals team that had just traded away Juan Soto and Josh Bell, the 5-1 loss is either an absurd testament to baseball's single-game flukiness, or a troubling omen. If deGrom is, indeed, healthy — he said that he "felt really good" — the Mets should be well-equipped to overcome that blip and keep their sights set on October.

Afterward, deGrom seemed happy. Really happy. He answered questions with an ebullient smile as he spoke of the plan to “run out there every fifth day.”

If there was any disappointment in his outing, it was that he didn’t get to pitch against Soto.

“I was actually looking forward to facing him,” deGrom said. “You want to face the best, he's one of the best hitters in the game.”

A reporter offered helpfully that the matchup could still come in the postseason.

“Maybe in the postseason,” deGrom repeated.