WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Jacob deGrom would have preferred a chance to test his offspeed pitches, but with his fastball humming Saturday, he stuck to the basics.
Deploying mostly raw heat — touching 100 mph on the radar gun at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches — the Mets ace, in his Grapefruit League debut this spring, allowed one hit and struck out three in his team’s 6-1 victory over the Astros in a game shortened to six innings by rain.
After Abraham Toro doubled on a slider in the second inning, deGrom (who was working for the first time in a game with catcher James McCann) went essentially all fastball. He threw 28 pitches over the two innings.
“I am big on reading swings and having a game plan going in and then what’s going on out there, having that kind of dictate what you do,” deGrom said. “After that double, [McCann] said, ‘Nobody is on time with the fastball,’ so we stuck with that and really worked on locating it.”
Before the game, manager Luis Rojas confirmed the obvious: deGrom will be his starting pitcher for Opening Day on April 1 in Washington. DeGrom will join Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and Johan Santana as the only Mets pitchers to start three straight openers.
If not for back soreness in spring training 2018 that disrupted his schedule, deGrom would be starting a fourth straight opener. Noah Syndergaard moved ahead of deGrom for that one turn in the rotation.
“Any time you get the nod for Opening Day it’s a huge honor,” deGrom said. “Every time I am mentioned with [Seaver, Gooden and Santana] it’s an honor as well. I go out there and try to have fun and compete to the best of my ability. The main thing is having fun playing this game and you’re mentioned with guys like that, it truly is an honor.”
Rojas cited the two-time Cy Young award winner’s work ethic and dedication to his craft as a reason he will be starting a third straight opener.
“Everybody knows he falls in that place and the rest of the pitchers here, the players look up to him, not only for his abilities on the field, but the way he carries himself,” Rojas said. “He is one of the first ones in the clubhouse. He is always there early and he’s working hard, he’s got a plan. Plus, what he’s done in the recent years, from earning the National League Rookie of the Year, to the awards and the way he’s pitched.”
With rain in the forecast, the Astros moved the scheduled night game to the afternoon, allowing Rojas more comfort in bringing deGrom on the road to face another team. The other option would have been keeping deGrom in Port St. Lucie to throw a simulated game, the route Rojas chose last Monday.
Rojas admitted it doesn’t much matter whether deGrom pitches in a exhibition game or stays home to face his own teammates — his competitive fire is the same.
Exhibit A was in deGrom’s simulated game last Monday when he goaded Michael Conforto into the batter’s box to face him. Conforto struck out and grounded out before going deep. Thinking his day was finished, Conforto was goaded into facing deGrom in one final at-bat. Conforto homered again.
“I jumped out there and he threw me four changeups in a row,” Conforto said. “Then a fastball and there was some discrepancy over whether I had walked — I thought I had walked, but he wouldn’t let me walk. And then that next pitch I kind of ended up hitting a slider.”
DeGrom said he probably had it coming.
“I saw he wasn’t on the list and I said, ‘Conforto, you want your birthday off, you are not going to come out and try to face me?’ ” deGrom said. “He gave me a little humble pie there.”