WASHINGTON — The buzz and clatter of baseball’s annual trading deadline drew most of the attention around the sport on Tuesday, and rightly so. Numerous players changed teams in a matter of hours, including Juan Soto, the devastating slugger for the Washington Nationals, whom some consider the best position player in the game.
The Nationals sent Soto and Josh Bell to the San Diego Padres for a host of prized prospects in the marquee trade of the day, and many other lesser deals were recorded, too. The Mets made a few trades of their own, but only to improve the team around the edges.
They did nothing spectacular, except welcome back a generational pitcher.
Jacob deGrom, the two-time winner of the National League Cy Young Award, returned to the mound on Tuesday night after more than a year lost to injuries, and he looked nearly as dominant as ever. He fired up the radar gun, fooled batters with his off-speed pitches, and best of all, reported no pain, discomfort or worrisome ticks whatsoever.
“To be out there and be healthy and feel good, that definitely was a good step,” he said.
DeGrom, who had been out since spring training with a stress reaction injury in his right shoulder blade, threw five innings of overpowering baseball and allowed one run and three hits while striking out six with only the slightest hints of rust. It was his first outing since July 7, 2021, when a forearm injury cost him the second half of a season that had the potential to be his best to date.
Showcasing his signature fastball, and combining it with crafty off-speed pitches, deGrom hit 100 miles per hour 13 times among his 59 pitches on Tuesday, including one that reached 101.6 m.p.h. against Victor Robles, Washington’s first batter of the game.
The Nationals, with a depleted lineup, looked overmatched and bewildered. When deGrom struck out the veteran slugger Nelson Cruz with a 93 m.p.h. slider in the second inning, Cruz walked back to the bench shaking his head.
“Now the challenge is to keep him out there,” Buck Showalter, the Mets manager, said. “It’s hard to do. We’ll see where he is in four days, hopefully.”
Demonstrating caution because of deGrom’s injury history, the Mets removed the 34-year-old after the fifth inning. The plan going into the game was to keep him to 70-75 pitches or five innings, whichever came first, and his efficiency against an overmatched lineup determined it would be the innings limit.
The Nationals capitalized on deGrom’s departure with back-to-back home runs by Luis Garcia and Yadiel Hernandez off the relief pitcher Stephen Nogosek in the sixth. Washington then held on for a 5-1 win.
But that was the small-picture stuff. The more important development was that deGrom looked strong and almost unhittable — in other words, like himself — and fans and teammates can now envision a clearer picture of a tantalizing playoff pitching rotation for the first-place Mets, with deGrom and Max Scherzer at the head of it.
“That could potentially be really huge for us,” said Pete Alonso, the Mets first baseman. “I’m really excited to see what can happen down the stretch. I just hope they can both stay healthy for us and continue to pitch the way that they do.”
Although the Mets did not make a high-profile trade, they did add four new players over the last few days. They added depth to the lineup with designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach, outfielder Tyler Naquin and the versatile Darin Ruf. And they bolstered their bullpen with Mychal Givens, a relief pitcher who was with the Baltimore Orioles from 2015-2018 when Showalter was their manager.
(Showalter said Givens was shifted from shortstop to pitcher when he was in the minor leagues, a path deGrom also took to the mound, years earlier.)
None of the players the Mets acquired are catchers and Givens is right handed, so many Mets fans, who hoped for those two roster holes to be filled, may be disappointed. Billy Eppler, the Mets’ general manager, said he did pursue those kinds of players (hinting that Willson Contreras of the Chicago Cubs might have been one target) but in the end decided not to part with any of, “our top 19 prospects.”
Fans could take umbrage with that cautious approach, but just 24 minutes after Tuesday’s deadline passed at 6 p.m., those Mets supporters who made the trip to Nationals Park to see their team were soothed by the sight of deGrom walking purposefully to the bullpen for pregame warm-ups.
A few dozen stood and cheered, but by the time deGrom strode to the mound for his first inning, there were thousands more Mets fans in the stadium and they gave their pitching hero another standing ovation.
“To be on the road and have Mets fans give me support like that was a really cool thing,” he said.
The day did not end in victory for deGrom. But Francisco Lindor homered in the top of the sixth, evening the score, 1-1, so deGrom was not charged with the loss, a fate that had been all too familiar for the slender right-hander over his years with the Mets, when marvelous performances were squandered by poor offensive support or faulty relief pitching. Over his past four seasons, deGrom’s earned run average was a remarkable 1.94, but his win-loss record was only 32-21.
The Mets hope that with a better team behind him and with a closer, Edwin Díaz, who has been terrific this year, many of those unfortunate losses will turn into wins, especially in the postseason. After that come more unknowns. DeGrom said he was planning to opt out of his contract and become a free agent after this season.
But for now, and the rest of the year, the Mets will be happy to consider him as a great addition, who happened to come back on trade deadline day.