Two wrapped cigars sit in Jacob deGrom’s locker at Citi Field, likely a celebratory gesture from one or more Mets teammates who welcomed babies into the world in recent weeks.
DeGrom will be back at that locker within the next day or so, but not to prepare for a start against the Yankees in the Subway Series, as the best-case scenario suggested following his 60-pitch simulated game in Port St. Lucie on Thursday.
Instead, deGrom will work out in New York on Sunday and then be slotted into another minor league rehab start. Dare we suggest it will be his last?
Mets general manager Billy Eppler said the 1-2 combo of not having deGrom stretched out enough and the absence of minor league games during the All-Star break led to the decision to continue the right-hander’s rehab. A simulated game is nice, but it doesn’t match the intensity of the real thing, with fans in the ballpark.
Mets manager Buck Showalter hinted this is also an attempt to get deGrom — whose latest outing was delayed two days because of muscle soreness in his right shoulder — to the finish line this season after more than a year on the sidelines rehabbing from various ailments.
“It’s a different time of the year now,” Showalter said before the Mets lost 4-1 to the Padres to open the second half. “It’s the dog days here as far as the heat and maybe the next two months are really a challenge physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s what we all get up in the morning for, to be put in that situation and see how you respond.”
The potential of deGrom pitching in the postseason is more important to the Mets than having him face the Yankees on a July night in Queens. Under old management or in different circumstances, deGrom probably would have been activated to pitch against the Yankees. But the Mets have an owner less obsessed with the Yankees than his predecessor was and a team on pace to reach 100 victories. It would be foolish to rush deGrom if he isn’t quite ready.
But the Mets can’t wait forever. Under MLB rules, a pitcher has 30 days to complete his minor league rehab assignment. DeGrom’s first rehab start in this return from a stress reaction on his right scapula occurred on July 3. That gives him until a week from Tuesday to finish his rehab. So, theoretically, the Mets could still give deGrom an additional minor league rehab start after this next one if they choose.
It’s rare that the 30-day rule becomes a factor, but this is also a pitcher that last appeared in a regular season game for the Mets on July 7, 2021. He has started from scratch in his buildup, putting him in the type of spot at which he would be near the conclusion of a normal spring training.
“We have operated quite a while without him, we are looking forward to operating with him, but when it happens it happens,” Showalter said.
Mets starting pitchers own a 2.41 ERA in 18 games this month. They want deGrom back as soon as possible, but have proven adept at surviving without him. The rotation also has weathered the loss of Max Scherzer for almost seven weeks. Scherzer provided another solid outing Friday, allowing two earned runs over six innings.
What kind of energy would deGrom’s return bring?
“Kind of the same as Max’s did,” Taijuan Walker said. “He was on the IL for seven weeks, came back and just Max’s energy and spark. Jake is not as vocal as Max, but just the awe you get. We know, ‘Oh, Jake is going out there.’
“We know there is a 99 percent chance we are going to win the game, because we know he is the best pitcher in the game and you know he’s going to go out there and give you six-plus innings with one run or less ball and probably 10 strikeouts every time.”
More cigars for deGrom’s locker may soon be appropriate, but only when it’s time to celebrate his return. That won’t be against the Yankees this week.