Jacob deGrom hits 5 on his Spring 2022 debut

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — There was an unusual buzz at Clover Field Tuesday night as Jacob deGrom took to the mound for the first time in eight months, carrying the weight of a fan base on his shoulders.

With each throw, murmurs ran through the crowd. Grapefruit League matches might not have much significance, but in the eyes of many, this one certainly did.

The last time deGrom touched the pitching rubber in a game setting was on July 7. Over the next few weeks, the two-time Cy Young Award winner began to experience enough constant elbow pain to knock him out of one start, then another, then eventually the entire second half of the season.

Without deGrom, the Mets soared, dropping from first to third place. So it was a heartwarming sight for thousands in Clover Park to see deGrom not just take the mound, but look pretty much like he always has, hitting 99 mph and striking out five of the seven batters he has. faced in a 2-0. the Astros.

“I was nervous, to be honest with you,” deGrom said, before adding, “It’s reassuring to go out there and feel perfectly fine.”

This offseason, deGrom made a minor but telling change to his routine: he started lifting heavier weights than before in his career. The results were subtle, but noticeable enough that at the start of camp, many people noticed a physical change in deGrom.

“He looks really good,” pitching coach Jeremy Hefner said.

The modification wasn’t necessarily designed to protect his elbow, but Hefner noted that it could definitely have that effect, as long as deGrom remains flexible. He did; while deGrom may have added some muscle, he actually didn’t gain weight. He’s still the same fine pitcher and fast food lover that he always was.

Even so, deGrom’s willingness to change even a bit is recognition that at 33, with just 160 innings on his arm in the last two seasons, durability will be crucial for the rest of his career. .

“You talk about fatigue in a game, like throws 75 to 110, if you’re strong and you have that muscle, then you’re not relying on your ligaments and joints to generate the force,” Hefner said. “You’re actually using muscle to generate force. As long as it’s malleable and the muscles are working properly, it’s just added value.

Even though deGrom said he camped healthy, confident and strong, the Mets are treading cautiously with their ace for obvious reasons. He threw just 30 pitches in his Grapefruit League debut and will have just two more opportunities to stretch in games before leaving Florida. If all goes according to plan, that will set deGrom at a limit of around five innings and 75 pitches on Opening Day — a conservative number befitting a pitcher who missed 3½ months with elbow issues.

Only if all goes well will the Mets more fully release deGrom, who seems to be okay with the relatively slow progress. On Tuesday, deGrom was focusing on “softness” in his mechanics, he said, which meant “not trying to throw as hard as possible.” This came in the form of mostly 97-98mph fastballs, a step away from where it was in the past when the Grapefruit League debuted. Only one of deGrom’s 30 pitches was over 98 mph, and that one needed rounding up.

“I’m sure there will be times when I’ll throw as hard as I can,” deGrom said. “When I’m really in sync and fluid, it comes out better than when I’m really trying to throw really hard.”

It remains to be seen if all of this – the slow ramp-up, the reduced speed, the extra iron plates in the weight room – will make a difference. For now, consider it a crucial unknown. Despite all of their off-season additions and improvements, the Mets understand that nothing is as important to their prospects throughout the season as a consistently healthy deGrom.

“That’s how fleeting it can be,” manager Buck Showalter said. “It’s about the assumptions, the guys that we’re going to depend on.”