Every Jacob deGrom start these days is a testament to pitching perfection, the most impressive combination of power and command since the peak of Pedro Martinez's Hall of Fame career.
Yet, once again, the New York Mets and their fans were left frustrated Wednesday, able to appreciate deGrom's brilliance but staring at a big fat loss on the scoreboard. The Mets' ace allowed one run over six innings against the Boston Red Sox, striking out nine to run his season total to 59, which matches Nolan Ryan's 1978 mark for most through a pitcher's first five starts of a season.
Unfortunately, that one run was the only one of the ballgame. The visiting Red Sox won 1-0 behind Nick Pivetta -- who is not to be confused with Pedro Martinez or Nolan Ryan -- and three relievers, who combined to strike out 15 batters and allow just two hits. Pivetta was good, the relievers were good, Matt Barnes struck out the side to finish it off -- and a chorus of boos rained down from the stands at Citi Field. The New York fans booed Francisco Lindor for the second straight night, as he went 0-for-3 to see his average drop to .203. They booed Dominic Smith, who went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts to see his average drop to .203. They cheered deGrom.
The lack of run support for deGrom is obviously an ongoing storyline stretching back several seasons. He will finish April 2-2 with a 0.51 ERA. He has now lost two games in which he allowed one run and received a no-decision in a third start when he pitched six scoreless innings. Wednesday marked the third time in three seasons the Mets have lost 1-0 in a deGrom start and the 33rd time in deGrom's career he allowed one run or no runs and failed to pick up the win -- easily the most in the majors since he debuted in 2014. (Julio Teheran is next with 25 such starts in that span.)
Maybe the most amazing part of the lack of offense for deGrom is that since 2018, which includes his Cy Young seasons of 2018 and 2019, he has a 1.99 ERA over 81 starts -- and yet is just 27-21. The Mets are just 38-43 in games he has started since 2018. How are the Mets supposed to win the National League East if they're a .500 team when the best pitcher in the sport takes the mound?
"I try not to think too much about [the lack of run support]," deGrom said after Wednesday's game. "I was more disappointed that I wasn't able to make pitches there in the second inning. ... I was just frustrated not being able to make an adjustment when I needed to."
Indeed, to hear deGrom discuss his outing, he pitched more like Anthony Young, the infamous Mets pitcher who lost 27 games in a row. The Red Sox scored their run in the second, when Xander Bogaerts led off by hitting a 1-0 fastball off the wall in left. It was a difficult play, but a more agile left fielder than Smith might have made the catch. Christian Vazquez knocked Bogaerts in with a one-out double to right-center off a 100 mph, 0-2 fastball up and away. It looked like a great piece of hitting from Vazquez. DeGrom blamed his execution.
"There in the second, I didn't make pitches when I needed to," deGrom said. "Left the ball over the middle, so Bogaerts hit the double, and just wasn't able to execute on those next few batters to get us out of that spot. Kind of displeased with my mechanics. Last start, it felt really good. This one felt like I was flying open -- everything seemed to be flat."
He said he was mostly disappointed because he felt so good in his previous start, when he fanned 15 in a two-hit shutout of the Washington Nationals, the best start of his career. He said being slightly off Wednesday caused his fastball to sail over the middle of the plate too often, which is why he eventually went to more sliders and changeups. Yes, that's how good deGrom is right now: A disappointing start is allowing one run and striking out nine batters.
The bigger problem for the Mets is that they're struggling to score no matter who is on the mound, ranking last in the majors at 3.0 runs per game. With runners in scoring position, they're hitting .187 with a .542 OPS -- both last in the majors -- a problem that also afflicted them in 2020. The power numbers are also down. They rank last in the majors with one home run every 39.7 at-bats, compared to ranking ninth in 2020 with one every 23.5 at-bats.
"I saw the guys in between today," manager Luis Rojas said. "The approach was just off, late on fastballs, chasing breaking balls, taking pitches in the zone. It was just off. We were just off."
Rojas said he had a pregame talk with Lindor, suggesting the new shortstop needed to be a little more aggressive. Lindor has been drawing walks and making contact, but he hasn't been driving the ball, with just one double and one home run in 19 games. On a pregame Zoom call, Lindor addressed getting booed on Tuesday, something he said never happened when he played for Cleveland.
"It's interesting and it's funny and it sucked," he said. "It doesn't feel right, for sure."
Here's Francisco Lindor's full reaction to being booed by the Citi Field crowd last night: pic.twitter.com/jFRM5u9Jpb— Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo) April 28, 2021
Lindor did hit a ball hard in the eighth inning Wednesday, ripping a 95.9 mph line drive that Marwin Gonzalez snared with a leaping grab. To point to Lindor's problems, that was the 25th ball in play this season he's hit at 95-plus mph -- the level considered a hard-hit ball -- but that has produced just eight hits for a .333/.320/.458 line (one of the balls was a sac fly). In 2020, he hit .430/.420/.810 on balls with a 95-plus exit velocity, and in 2019 he hit .549/.541/1.108 on such balls. The two-year trend is certainly worth paying attention to, a sign that he's hitting too many balls on the ground and not enough line drives or big flies.
Still, Lindor is not the only one struggling. Smith, Jeff McNeil and Michael Conforto all hit .300 last season but are all hitting under .220 with just five home runs combined. The Mets have to expect things will turn around, given this looked like it would be one of the best lineups in the league.
"We have nothing but trust in our hitters because we know they can hit," Rojas said. "We know what they've done in the past. You expect that to happen soon, but it's something that we need to go and turn around right now."
Luckily, the NL East is a quagmire of mediocrity. The Mets are 9-10, but nobody is over .500. They still have deGrom and that should -- in theory -- help them win a lot of games. Still, Mets fans are left staring at this nugget: DeGrom is the first pitcher with an ERA as low as 0.51 in a month to finish without a winning record since Fernando Valenzuela went 2-3 with a 0.21 ERA in April 1985.