LOS ANGELES — Rawboned and gangling, he peered peek-a-boo over his glove, rocked and curled the ball behind his head. Sucking his lips hard against his teeth, he spun toward the plate, his right leg kicking up behind him, his hair a whirling dervish mop of locks.
All evening Friday, Jacob deGrom executed this delivery, tossing that most intriguing pitch: the seemingly effortless 97-98 miles per hour fastball. Some skidded sideways, others slithered downward. When for punctuation he tossed a couple of 3-2 changeups, the effect on the batters was almost unfair.
He completed seven innings, striking out 13 and walking just one. He gave up five hits.
This was movie-set baseball playoffs on Friday evening. Fringed by palm trees and hills, Dodger Stadium sits against the backdrop of the San Gabriels, which turn red-hued as the sun sets. Add an autumnal heat wave, and the baseball crackled.
The Mets’ prospects did not look promising. The Dodgers started Clayton Kershaw, who is the arch deacon of National League pitchers. Zack Greinke will follow Saturday evening. Together they form the most fearsome pitching duo in the league.
The Mets’ young arms are formidable; their pitchers throw with microwave-dialed-high intensity. But Kershaw had been near unhittable of late. His style is sui generis. He stares samurai style into space somewhere over first base. Then he stretches his arms high over his head, like a cat in full stretch, and turns to the plate and unfolds a halting delivery. He has perhaps eight pitches, which arrive at speeds of between 97 and 74 miles per hour.
If you sit on his fastball, Kershaw’s changeup or sweeping curve can all but pull your shoulders out of sockets.
The Mets’ center fielder, Yoenis Cespedes, looking fashionable in his radioactive lime-green hitting sleeve, settled into the batter’s box in the first inning. Kershaw gave him a 96 m.p.h. hello. Two more strikes followed and Cespedes took a seat back in the dugout.
In his home stadium and throwing well, Kershaw should have been the story of the night.
But deGrom offered his own flip of that script. Friday’s matchup played as The Kid against the Ace; in fact, deGrom, 27, is just three months younger than Kershaw. His path to the majors had been as winding and tangled as Kershaw’s was straightforward.
deGrom’s career plays as an improbable dice roll of chance, and a study in the tenuous nature of success for a pitcher. He played shortstop in college and only then turned to pitching. His statistics offered no hint of dominance.
The Mets drafted him in the ninth round. “We liked his attitude, and he was an athlete,” the Mets’ former general manager Omar Minaya said recently. “But you take a kid in the ninth round of the draft, you can’t claim you saw it all play out.”
The Mets’ staff is thick with golden boys. Their blond giant Noah Syndergaard got a signing bonus of $600,000 from the Toronto Blue Jays. Matt Harvey, the erstwhile Dark Knight, signed for a cool $2.5 million. (The Dodgers signed Kershaw to a bonus of $2.3 million).
deGrom signed for $95,000. The Mets packed him off to rural Tennessee and after six not-terribly-impressive starts he tore his ulnar collateral ligament. He embarked on a year of anonymous rehabilitation.
Somehow, improbably, his fastball gained a foot of hop. The kid who threw 93 now touches 98 m.p.h.. And he became a more polished pitcher; Johan Santana, who was rehabbing his shoulder, taught him to throw a changeup. He also broke a finger castrating a cow, which set him back. He finally made it to the majors last year, at age 26. Kershaw pitched his first season at age 20. deGrom throws with an insistent urgency, as if intent on wasting no more time. His late start and his injuries have cost him in lifetime earnings; he now makes a touch more than half a million dollars and will not become a free agent until he is well into his 30s.
“Jake has as much confidence in his ability as anybody I’ve ever known,” his manager, Terry Collins, noted. “This guy had to work harder than other people.”
His 2015 record spoke to seasonlong excellence. He struck out 205 and walked just 38. He had the best WHIP on the staff, and one of the best in the major leagues.
He unleashed all of this on the Dodgers last night, a hail of bee-bee fastballs and sliders and changeups. The Dodger hitters could do nothing with him; Michael Cuddyer, the Mets’ left fielder, presented a bigger challenge.
The Mets have a sometimes maddening predilection for favoring offense at every turn. So the aging Cuddyer was asked to gambol in left field. In the second inning, the Dodgers’ Justin Turner hit a hard, if catchable, line drive to left. Cuddyer took a couple of quick halting steps backward and reached, and reached again. The ball bounced off his glove and Turner had a double.
An inning later, Cuddyer did an encore, and the Dodgers had another two-base hit.
In his six innings in the field, Cuddyer obtained a nice cardio workout Friday, running here and there, jumping, crashing into the wall. His misadventures also forced deGrom to throw another dozen or so pitches. It didn’t seem to bother the pitcher. After Cuddyer’s first miscue, deGrom struck out three of the next four batters.
Afterwards, deGrom sidled into the interview room, wedged between Daniel Murphy who hit a Kershaw fastball for a home run and David Wright, the team captain, who lined a two-run single to center in the seventh inning right after Kershaw was pulled from the game.
Are you a different pitcher in your second year in the majors? deGrom nodded.
“I’ve got more confidence,” he said. “There were a couple times tonight, 3-2, where I threw a couple of changeups. I would say last year I probably wouldn’t have done that.”
You put a similar question to Wright. Stenosis, the narrowing of the spinal canal, sidelined him for months this season. He had reason to fear for his career, and now he is at the center of a playoff team. His work Friday night was particularly artful, as with the bases loaded he worked the count against a jumpy flamethrower of a relief pitcher.
Are you a different hitter? He shrugged off the notion. Then he reconsidered.
“Compared to nine years ago, I think that I’m a little more methodical with the thought process and going up there with probably a better game plan, being a little older, a little more experienced.”
Of course, brains are fine, but ability doesn’t hurt. Wright pointed with his chin to the long river of a pitcher who sat next to him. deGrom’s oh-so-valuable right arm and elbow was wrapped in balloon-like packs of ice.
“We’ve got this guy,” Wright said. “He’s a little modest, he won’t admit it, but he’s a beast.”
An unexpected beast who just happened to beat the best pitcher in the National League.