One big swing by Michael Conforto on Sunday saved the Mets from an utterly disastrous weekend in Pittsburgh. Conforto, an outfielder trudging through the worst season of his career, blasted a two-run homer in the ninth inning to lift the Mets past the Pirates, 7-6.
That was nice, of course, but it was something like a cheap parting gift at the end of the dreariest party of the year. Before Sunday’s victory, there were four losses — two games and two superstars — that infused a fun season with a sudden sense of foreboding.
The Mets had three hits on Friday and lost. Before Saturday’s game, shortstop Francisco Lindor went on the injured list with a Grade 2 right oblique strain that will keep him out for weeks. That night, Edwin Diaz gave up a game-ending grand slam with two outs in the ninth.
All of that was bad enough — and then came the news Sunday morning that the tightness in Jacob deGrom’s right forearm, on his throwing arm, would send him to the injured list. The Mets played short-handed on Sunday and announced after the game that Jerad Eickhoff would start on Monday in Cincinnati. They still have not named a starter for Tuesday’s game.
“We’re going to continue to expect to win,” said Conforto, whose homer capped a comeback from a six-run deficit in the first inning. “That’s just the culture we’ve built. Obviously there’s some adversity we have to face, but up to this point, it feels like we’ve thrived on that adversity. It’s only going to bring us closer together.”
At 48-42, the Mets lead the National League East by two games over the Philadelphia Phillies (47-45), who have won 10 of their 14 games in July. The Phillies are hardly a juggernaut, but it is safe to say they are lurking, if only because they are the healthiest team in the division.
Lindor was hitting only .228 with 11 home runs, but his track record suggested an impending second-half surge that is now on hold. Even when he is not hitting well, Conforto said, Lindor contributes.
“He’s just a natural leader,” Conforto said. “Regardless of how he’s playing, he’s a presence, so hopefully we have him with us until he gets to go rehab.”
And then there’s deGrom, whose sublime season has been stalked by minor injuries. Here is the updated tally:
Inflammation in right latissimus dorsi, May 4 (missed start)
Right side tightness, May 9 (left start early, placed on injured list)
Flexor tendinitis in right elbow, June 11 (left start early)
Shoulder soreness, June 16 (left start early)
Right forearm tightness, July 18 (placed on injured list)
While his previous arm injuries resulted from hitting, deGrom said, this one did not. He did not feel fresh in his bullpen session last Sunday, he said, and then felt irritation in Pittsburgh on Friday.
“We got images of the elbow and the forearm, and it’s down in the forearm,” deGrom said. “So when I go to release the baseball, I’m having a hard time staying through it and throwing the ball how I’m supposed to. The other day I felt it from literally lobbing a baseball, and then it never really seemed to feel any better. It just continued to stay tight even when I got on a mound.”
He added: “I guess the positive thing is, structurally, my elbow looks good. But the frustrating part is: What is it? What did I do to cause it?”
When the hardest-throwing starting pitcher in baseball feels pain while lobbing a ball, it is clearly cause for alarm. DeGrom has been overpowering in his 15 starts. His 146 strikeouts in just 92 innings are second in the National League only to Philadelphia’s Zack Wheeler’s 152 in 19 starts. DeGrom leads the majors in earned run average, at 1.08. He allows 3.9 hits and 1.1 walks per nine innings, both major league lows.
Double all of that, and you’d have one of the greatest single seasons in major league history. But durability does not accompany that kind of dominance. DeGrom is a starter who pitches like a closer, with a fastball that averages 99.2 miles per hour. No other starter even averages 98 m.p.h.
In 2015, when he helped the Mets reach the World Series, deGrom averaged 95.7 m.p.h. with his fastball. Now he is 33 years old, and perhaps his body cannot handle all that heat. The Mets’ training staff, Manager Luis Rojas said, is keenly aware of the physical toll.
“They know his routine by the book, so they have a really good feel for where Jake is at,” Rojas said. “I mean, we all know that this is a different Jake than five years ago, six years ago, right? Jake is throwing harder, and he’s older. He’s going to start feeling different things, maybe.
“Those guys are still working on everything that he’s dealt with this year, and they’re not related. So right now the main focus is isolating this one, because it has nothing to do with anything else that’s happened before in the season, even though it’s been five different things. Those guys are just going to be paying attention, monitoring Jake, because they know the force he creates when he pitches.”
That force, and the dominance it produces, is enough to make the Mets hopeful they can make a deep October run. But first they have to get there, and then deGrom has to be the best version of himself — and peak deGrom, it seems, may be simply unsustainable.
“My level of frustration right now is very high,” he said, and every Mets fan would nod in sad agreement.