As someone who lived in New York, albeit briefly, I can tell you it’s not for the faint of heart. Many athletes have learned that the hard way. Between the rabid fan base and swarming media presence, it can be a lot to handle, especially when your team is in free-fall mode as the Mets were most of last year. Being a sports superstar in the Big Apple can often be a thankless job, but as Jacob deGrom would be the first to tell you, it also has its perks.
After dragging their feet all winter, the penny-pinching Mets finally gave up their months-long game of contract chicken, gifting deGrom a $137.5 million fortune for his trouble. The reigning Cy Young winner definitely didn’t come cheap, but this wasn’t the time for the Mets to get cute by low-balling their ace. The 30-year-old’s contract, or lack thereof, was becoming a clubhouse distraction. Noah Syndergaard essentially put the front office on blast for—to quote Rod Tidwell—not showing his pal the money (he also didn’t seem too thrilled to be making a pit-stop in Syracuse, but that’s a topic for another day). In the end, locking deGrom down now instead of stubbornly holding their ground for another two years and further alienating their franchise cornerstone, was the only move that made sense.
Which brings us to Thursday’s Opening Day matchup against Washington. The pessimism police are never far away in Queens, where the rollercoaster Mets (I suppose it’s only fitting that their Single-A affiliate in Coney Island literally plays next to a roller coaster) are always a wind gust away from burning the place down. But for the first time in what feels like forever, deGrom—who has made a career out of being hung out to dry by teammates who can’t score for him—has absolutely nothing to complain about, except for maybe traffic on the LIE.
What I’m trying to say is, Jacob Anthony deGrom had himself an excellent week. The higher-ups cut him a check worth roughly double the Marlins’ payroll while the Mets—buoyed by the offseason additions of Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz—figure to be more competitive this year. And if that wasn’t enough to bring a smile to his face, deGrom began 2019 by outdueling three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer on Thursday.
Maybe I buried the lede just a little. Thursday’s opener between the Nationals and the division-rival Mets (or as I like to call them, the Fighting Jerry Seinfelds), featured the best pitching matchup on the slate and, true to form, the dueling right-handers didn’t disappoint. Both starters were dealing, but on this day, only deGrom walked away from the nation’s capital a winner. The Mets hurler went scorched earth on the Nats, holding Washington to five hits and a walk over six shutout frames. He logged 10 strikeouts for good measure while extending his streak of quality starts to 25. And while he was at it, deGrom made a bit of history, allowing three runs or fewer for a record 30th straight start, topping the previous mark held by then-Cubs flamethrower Jake Arrieta.
DeGrom, who admitted to being nervous prior to the game, passed his first test of 2019 with flying colors. So did Scherzer, who spun 7 2/3 mesmerizing frames before giving way to the Nats’ bullpen. For the afternoon, Scherzer scattered two hits, the same number of runs and three walks to go with 12 punch-outs over 109 pitches. The 34-year-old was his usual, filthy self, except for when he crossed paths with Robinson Cano. The former Yankee reintroduced himself to the city that never sleeps with a fabulous debut, delivering two of the Mets’ five hits including a goliath blast that opened the scoring for New York in the first inning. The eight-time All-Star took an 84-mph changeup and knew just what to do with it, depositing Scherzer’s offering into the center field seats for a solo home run.
Cano’s first at-bat in a Mets uniform couldn’t have gone much better but rather than rest on his laurels, the 36-year-old second baseman went back for a second helping. That came in the eighth when Cano dropped a single to left field, plating Dominic Smith with the game’s second run. That capped a 2-for-4 afternoon for Cano, who also made a stellar defensive play by freezing rookie Victor Robles in a third-inning run-down.
Returning to the city that made him a star after a five-year sabbatical in the Pacific Northwest, Cano didn’t come to New York to relive his past. He came for a fresh start (and also because the Mariners traded him, but let’s not split hairs). The final year of Cano’s Seattle tenure was tarnished by a PED suspension, which sidelined the two-time Gold Glove Award winner for 80 games. With Cano getting up in years and Dee Gordon ready to step into an every-day role at second base, the Mariners shipped the veteran cross country along with All-Star closer Edwin Diaz in a deal that brought Jay Bruce, Anthony Swarzak and a trio of prospects to the grunge capital.
Speaking of Diaz, last year’s MLB saves leader didn’t skip a beat in his Mets debut, mowing down the Nationals in a dominant ninth-inning cameo. It only took the Puerto Rico native 14 pitches to conquer the trio of Juan Soto, Ryan Zimmerman and Matt Adams, putting a bow on New York’s 2-0 Opening Day victory. “That was a hell of a trade,” said manager Mickey Callaway after the game. The second-year skipper must not be familiar with the adage “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched,” but his sentiment is still mostly right—so far so good on the Diaz/Cano front.
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Thursday was a day of new beginnings for the revamped Mets but also for the Nationals, who are adjusting to life in the post-Bryce Harper era. The Nats are by no means rebuilding—with up-and-comer Juan Soto and established stars like Trea Turner (who put on a base-stealing clinic with three thefts in Thursday’s opener), Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg and the aforementioned Scherzer, Washington is anything but a pushover. But with deGrom locked in and a stingy Mets bullpen allowing little margin for error, the Nats could certainly have used a lift from Harper—an on-base maestro with clutch in his bones—on a day like Thursday.
Opening Day at Nationals Park also gave us a first glimpse at two of the game’s premier prospects in Victor Robles (No. 4 in MLB.com’s latest prospect rankings) and Pete Alonso (No. 51). Robles’ first Opening Day nod alternated between moments of brilliance and cringe-inducing failure. His base-running blunder cost the Nats dearly while his two strikeouts were similarly unhelpful, though to Robles’ credit, the 21-year-old doubled off deGrom and also supplied a highlight-reel catch on a ninth-inning robbery of Wilson Ramos. Alonso’s first day on the job included the usual rookie growing pains (two strikeouts) but also a glimmer of promise with an eighth-inning single off reliever Justin Miller. Both are a work in progress, but clearly the moment wasn't too big for either player, which is half the battle in transitioning from the relative low-stakes of minor league ball to the bright lights of MLB.
As encouraging as Thursday was for the Mets, let’s not rush to judgment. After all, New York started 11-1 last year, only to finish eight games under .500. They were better down the stretch (34-22 over their final 56 games) but let’s face it—the Mets are as volatile as Bitcoin. We know the rotation can hold its own and Diaz should bring much-needed stability to the back end of New York’s bullpen, but can the lineup tread water while Yoenis Cespedes works back from heel surgery? We’ll know soon enough.
AL Quick Hits: Chris Sale, who just landed a five-year, $145 million extension, got knocked around against the Mariners (3 IP, 6 H, 7 ER) Thursday as the Red Sox opened their title defense with a clunker in Seattle. Tim Beckham belted two homers in the victory while Domingo Santana drove in four runs, upping his season RBI total to nine … Jordan Zimmermann was dominant in his first taste of 2019, taking a perfect game into the seventh Thursday as Detroit topped Toronto in extras. Teoscar Hernandez ended his bid for perfection with a two-out infield single. Had he pulled it off, it would have been the right-hander’s second career no-no after previously stonewalling Miami in the 2014 season finale … The longest home run of Opening Day belonged to Rangers slugger Nomar Mazara, who jacked a 482-foot bomb to right field against Cubs southpaw Mike Montgomery. Despite the tape-measure blast from Mazara, Chicago still got the W, dispatching Texas by a lopsided 12-4 margin … After homering in his first at-bat each of the previous two years, George Springer waited until his second trip to the plate to go yard Thursday in a win over Tampa Bay. That long ball came off reigning AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell, who was tagged for five runs on six hits including a career-high three homers in the losing effort … It’s been an eventful start for Khris Davis, who has already homered on two continents this season. After going deep in Tokyo last week, Davis crushed another long ball Thursday—this time on American soil—in Oakland’s 4-0 win over the Angels. The 31-year-old led the majors with 48 round-trippers in 2018 … Andrew Heaney will be shut down until further notice after suffering a setback to his injured elbow during a recent side session. The Oklahoma State product led Los Angeles with 180 punch-outs last year … In other Angels injury news, Shohei Ohtani took on-field batting practice Wednesday, the latest progress in his recovery from Tommy John surgery. The Japanese phenom won’t pitch this season but he should be able to DH for the Halos, perhaps by the end of next month … Whit Merrifield delivered a single Thursday in Kansas City’s triumph over the White Sox, extending his hitting streak to 21 games. The 30-year-old speedster also nabbed two steals in the winning effort … In that same game, prized prospect Eloy Jimenez made his big-league debut for the White Sox, going 0-for-3 with an RBI and two strikeouts while drawing the start in left field. The 22-year-old came over from the Cubs in the return package for Jose Quintana when he was dealt at the 2017 trade deadline … Congratulations are in order for Leonys Martin, who supplied one of the Indians’ two hits—a fourth-inning double off Jose Berrios—in Thursday’s loss to Minnesota. Martin, who started in center field for Cleveland, came down with a life-threatening bacterial virus last summer, losing 40 pounds before finally receiving a clean bill of health in November. Props to Martin for beating his illness and making it back to the big leagues.
NL Quick Hits: The Home Run Derby isn’t for another three months but the Dodgers decided they couldn’t wait that long. Los Angeles buried the Diamondbacks behind a barrage of round-trippers—eight to be exact—in Thursday’s 12-5 victory. Four of the eight bombs (a major league record for Opening Day) were served up by Zack Greinke, who was lit up for seven runs in just 3 2/3 innings. Enrique Hernandez and Joc Pederson bashed two a piece while Corey Seager, who was making his first appearance since last year’s Tommy John surgery, helped the cause with a fourth-inning solo shot … Lorenzo Cain was the hero in Milwaukee Thursday, preserving a victory over St. Louis by stealing a home run from Jose Martinez in the game’s final at-bat. Brewers starter Jhoulys Chacin took Miles Mikolas deep for his second career homer in Milwaukee’s 5-4 win … Corey Knebel has an important decision coming up and he’ll make it Friday. The Brewers closer is deciding whether to undergo Tommy John surgery after suffering a UCL injury earlier this month. With Jeremy Jeffress (shoulder) also on the shelf, look for Josh Hader to hold down the ninth inning until further notice … Sporting a pair of Philly Phanatic-themed kicks, Bryce Harper went 0-for-3 with a walk and two strikeouts in his Phillies debut Thursday at Citizen’s Bank Park. Despite a poor showing from Harper, Philadelphia still routed the Braves 10-4, benefiting from three homers including a seventh-inning grand slam by Rhys Hoskins. Andrew McCutchen also went yard in his Phillies debut … Javier Baez picked up where he left off last season, starting his 2019 campaign with a pair of home runs as Chicago annihilated the Rangers 12-4 in Thursday’s opener. The 26-year-old led the National League with 111 RBI last season while finishing runner-up to Christian Yelich in MVP voting … One of several high-profile rookies making his debut Thursday, Fernando Tatis Jr. chipped in with two hits, both singles, in a victory over San Francisco. The 20-year-old is the youngest player since Jurickson Profar to record two hits in his major league debut. While Tatis impressed, his teammate Manny Machado wasn’t as successful, going 0-for-3 with a pair of strikeouts in his first game donning a Padres uniform … Giants manager Bruce Bochy confirmed that Will Smith will serve as the club’s closer to begin the year. Smith was the obvious choice over Mark Melancon, who faltered to a dismal 9.45 ERA over seven Cactus League appearances this spring.