WASHINGTON — Some of the best players in baseball changed teams over the past few days, including Juan Soto, the talented young slugger who was traded from the Washington Nationals to the San Diego Padres before Major League Baseball’s trade deadline on Tuesday.
The Mets made a few trades of their own, but only to improve the team around the edges. They did nothing spectacular, except welcome back a generational pitcher.
Jacob deGrom, the two-time winner of the National League Cy Young Award, returned to the mound on Tuesday night after more than a year of dealing with injuries, and looked nearly as dominant as ever.
DeGrom, who had been out since spring training with a stress reaction injury in his right shoulder blade, threw five innings of overpowering baseball and allowed one run and three hits while striking out six. The Nationals were playing with a depleted lineup after sending Soto and Josh Bell to the Padres earlier in the day for a collection of prized prospects, and for most of the game they looked overmatched and bewildered.
Showcasing his signature fastball, and combining it with crafty off-speed pitches at key moments for strikeouts, deGrom hit 100 miles per hour 13 times among his 59 pitches, including one that reached 101.6 m.p.h. against Victor Robles, Washington’s first batter of the game.
When he struck out the veteran slugger Nelson Cruz with a 93 m.p.h. slider in the second inning, Cruz walked back to the bench shaking his head.
But demonstrating caution, the Mets removed deGrom, who is 34 and has a history of injury problems, after the fifth inning. The Nationals capitalized with back-to-back home runs by Luis Garcia and Yadiel Hernandez off the relief pitcher Stephen Nogosek in the sixth, and the Nationals won, 5-1.
But that was very small-picture stuff. The more important development was that deGrom looked strong and almost unhittable — in other words, like himself — and fans can now see a clearer picture of a tantalizing playoff pitching rotation for the first-place Mets, with deGrom and Max Scherzer at the head of it.
Many of those fans poured into Nationals Park on Tuesday, eager to see deGrom in person for the first time since July 7, 2021, when a right forearm injury forced him to miss the rest of the season. Then in spring training he developed the stress reaction, which can lead to a stress fracture.
His return came almost 13 months after his last outing.
“Can you imagine having that potential at your fingertips and not being able to get to it?” Buck Showalter, the Mets’ manager, said before the game.
An hour later, at 6:24 p.m., deGrom emerged from the Mets’ dugout and headed to the bullpen, eliciting a burst of cheers from a few dozen fans that were already in the park. When he took the mound for the first time in the first inning, the number of fans had swelled to thousands and they gave deGrom a standing ovation.
The Nationals’ only run against him came in the fourth inning when Robles led off with a ground ball single and stole second base. He scored when Garcia drove a 99 m.p.h. fastball into the gap in right field. But deGrom escaped the rest of that inning and needed only eight pitches to get through the fifth.
Francisco Lindor homered in the top of the sixth, evening the score, 1-1, so deGrom was not charged with the loss, a fate that had been all too familiar for the slender right-hander over his years with the Mets, when marvelous performances were squandered by poor offensive support or faulty relief pitching. Over his past four seasons, deGrom’s earned run average was a remarkable 1.94, but his win-loss record was only 32-21.
The Mets hope that with a better team behind him and with a closer, Edwin Díaz, who has been terrific this year, many of those unfortunate losses will turn to wins, especially in the postseason. After that come more unknowns. DeGrom said he was planning to opt out of his contract and become a free agent.
But for now, and the rest of the year, the Mets will be happy to consider him as a great addition on trade deadline day.