To think, when the day began with good Mets news at Citi Field, it felt natural. Like a marathoner knocking off a crisp, 12-mile run in preparation for the next race.
Alas, we should know by now that with this baseball team, even a 60-game sprint will be a marathon.
When Jacob deGrom didn’t emerge for a second inning of work Tuesday night, after appearing to get through the first frame without much difficulty, alarm bells sounded throughout the Mets’ vast fandom. Suddenly the great vibe that had carried over from the first spring training, one that grew stronger with the return of Robinson Cano from an unexplained absence, fizzled like Napster 1.0.
Over an hour later, the Mets provided the update, and it could have been worse: The two-time reigning National League Cy Young Award-winner left with back tightness. Presumably, we’ll get more information on Wednesday.
Just like that, the optimism wanes. The positive karma teeters. The Mets’ universe receives a painful reminder that, while the lineup looks pretty darn powerful and the bullpen possesses a high ceiling, there’s no replacing their ace.
Sure, anything can happen in this miniseason. A Mets roster without deGrom still would be interesting. No way in heck, however, could it be anyone’s favorite to capture the ultracompetitive NL East. Not with number two starter Noah Syndergaard already out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
In the hours leading up to what they hoped would be a routine day at the office, with deGrom getting ready for his Opening Day start here July 24 against the Braves, the Mets were reveling in their good fortune and strong state of mind.
“I think we kept that vibe throughout the pandemic,” manager Luis Rojas said. “The same camaraderie that we had in the first camp, it’s going on right now.”
That first camp at Clover Field, with Rojas just having replaced the deposed Carlos Beltran, proceeded jovially and relatively injury-free, laying a foundation.
“This team is such a close-knit group,” Dominic Smith said. “We’re all definitely relieved and happy that we’re back here together and we’re just having fun.” Seeing Cano return, after being away for about a week, was “heartening,” Smith said.
To paint an accurate picture, the air didn’t go out of the ballpark when Justin Wilson relieved deGrom for the second inning, the Mets putting a runner on second base to simulate the extra-inning setup that relievers like Wilson will face. The players continued to hoot and holler and cheer on each other.
Maybe deGrom will shake this off and still be ready for the 24th, for the 12 regular-season starts plus the playoffs. He experienced back woes in February 2018 and proceeded to win his first Cy Young. That time, though, he enjoyed over a month to get ready for the start of the season (and he started the second game of the year, following Syndergaard). At the least, this development sets back his buildup.
In this quick season, in this jam-packed division, the Mets would rather not test the theory that they’re deep enough to withstand an absent Syndergaard and even a reduced deGrom. They’d rather face the questions about having too many starting pitchers, as they did back at Clover Field in February and March, then start the guessing game over who becomes the fifth starter after Marcus Stroman, Steven Matz, Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha; the obvious candidates are Walker Lockett, Corey Oswalt and youngster David Peterson.
No, the Mets will hold their breath just like their fans. They’ll cross their fingers that nearly six months of positivity, the franchise’s fate appearing to change the moment they jettisoned 2017 Astros sign-stealer Carlos Beltran from their manager’s office, didn’t go away in a blink.
If they could, they’d surely trade 75 percent of that January-to-July good news for one upbeat piece of information on Wednesday. That’s not how it works, of course. Hence a season hangs in the balance. The only downside to employing a bona fide ace, after all, is facing the prospect of losing him.
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