Even in an age of soaring strikeout totals and debates over whether or not no-hitters are getting boring, one pitching feat has remained especially elusive: the 20-strikeout game. Far rarer even than perfection, only four pitchers ever have put their names to this storied accomplishment—with just one of them coming in this millennium. But even more than the rarity of 20 itself, nobody has even gotten all that close since Max Scherzer fanned a score back in 2016. (Chris Sale, who K-ed 17 Rockies in 2019 before leaving the game after seven innings, has the highest mark since, with a handful of guys just below at 16.) This is despite the league average for K/9 jumping all the way to 9.2 this season, up more than a full strikeout from five years ago.
If anyone from this generation of pitchers is going to hit 20 Ks—or even be the first to 21—it would have to be Jacob deGrom, who’s lapping the field with his 14.91 K/9 in what’s been an MVP-caliber season so far. Last night briefly felt like it could have been The One, as deGrom recorded eight of the first nine outs via the strikeout, but then disaster struck, as he had to leave early because of shoulder soreness.
As more and more New Yorkers have started getting back to the ballpark, deGrom’s home starts have gained a special aura, and the love from the crowd on Wednesday night against the Cubs had Mets announcers favorably comparing him to Tom Seaver. For one third of the game, deGrom gave the fans what they came to see both on the mound and in the batter’s box. In his sole at-bat, which started with a standing ovation, deGrom went down 0-2 with two outs, battled back to a full count, and then knocked a single into right field to improve his average to .423 and drive in his sixth run of the year. (Meanwhile, he’s only allowed four earned in 67.0 innings as a pitcher this season.)
On the mound he was something beyond dominant, mowing down the entirety of the Cubs batting order flawlessly. As he walked off after three, he had struck out seven Cubs in a row and eight total. You can do the math there, and if you wish you can also be skeptical about whether or not he’d be able to keep it up even under the best of circumstances. But I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t think it was happening.
Tragically, though, that was it for deGrom in this game. The TV cameras caught him heading to the locker room immediately from the field, and in the top of the fourth, Sean Reid-Foley took the reins and helped pilot the Mets to a 6-3 victory—their eighth win in their last 10, but one tempered by yet another issue with the limits of deGrom’s body. Back in May, he had a problem with his right side that limited his innings, and in his last start against the Padres it was flexor tendinitis in his right arm that kept him from throwing more than six. That’s, if you’re counting, three separate issues that he’s somehow battled through in order to still be the best and most important player in the National League.
“This is getting old,” deGrom said after the game on Wednesday. “I want to be out there competing instead of coming out of these games.”
deGrom and Mets manager Luis Rojas both downplayed the seriousness of the shoulder soreness in the postgame, with Rojas saying he got “an encouraging report.” deGrom’s overall attitude, obviously, is that of an athlete who’s achieving something transcendent on a weekly basis and doesn’t want it interrupted.
“I want to be out there every fifth day,” he said when asked if he would take time off. “That will be a decision based on what we see, but the competitor in me wants to be out there.”
Nobody besides opposing hitters wants to see deGrom sidelined, but, rationally, it’s difficult not to consider the benefits of pressing pause on his season for a bit in order to get everything fixed up, especially as the Mets look playoff-bound. Only his doctors can know if that’s the right move or not, though the Mets’ injury history doesn’t exactly give me much confidence there, either. Whatever the Mets end up doing, I hope they pick the option that lets deGrom pitch the most games he can—ideally this month and this season, but also for the rest of his career. But I also hope he gets 20.