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Jacob deGrom shows grit to go with fire

Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom gets high-fives with a

Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom gets high-fives with a smile after the third inning against the Dodgers during Game 5 of the NLDS at Dodger Stadium on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

If Dodger Stadium hadn't been so loud, with music thumping and white towels twirling, Jacob deGrom probably would have heard the pop of the bullpen catcher's mitt. Even warming up, Noah Syndergaard's pitches tend to make noise.

It was only the second inning, not usually a time for deGrom to be looking over his shoulder. But this was a Game 5, and the Dodgers were making far too much contact. We couldn't blame Terry Collins for getting anxious.

That must have been an uneasy feeling, watching deGrom -- the staff ace -- looking unusually mortal. His fastball was a few ticks off, sitting around 95 mph rather than the 97-98 of Game 1, and the pitches were grabbing far too much plate.

Handed a 1-0 lead in the first inning, deGrom failed to hold it for three outs, giving up four consecutive singles in the bottom half as the Dodgers leaped ahead 2-1. The Mets could not have been more confident turning over a winner-take-all game to deGrom, with an extra day to recover from a 121-pitch effort. So to see him unraveling in the biggest start of his life should have been destabilizing to the Mets.

"This kid is a competitor,'' Terry Collins said leading up to Thursday night's Game 5. "He really, really competes, and you've got to like that. He's not afraid to challenge somebody if he has to. He's got great confidence in his stuff. So that's why I think he's going to be really, really good.''

Everyone did. Only a season removed from Rookie of the Year, deGrom was mentioned in the Cy Young hunt during the first half, along with the Dodger duo and the Cubs' Jake Arrieta, before falling off the pace. He outdueled Clayton Kershaw for the Game 1 win, striking out 13 in seven scoreless innings.

On this night, however, deGrom was the opposite early on. During one stretch, he managed only three misses on 17 swings, far below his season rate of 23.8 percent, fourth best in the majors. Of his first 10 hitters, six reached base, the same total he allowed for all of Game 1.

It didn't seem possible. Maybe others would shrink in this spotlight, but not deGrom, whose chilly demeanor was the perfect shield. They couldn't have created a pitcher more suited for this moment in history, their most important game since the failed 2006 postseason run.

"I just try to block everything out once I get on the field,'' deGrom said. "The nerves go away . . . If I give up a hit or something, so what?''

He wasn't kidding. Too often, deGrom appeared to be a pitch away from his removal. Collins had Syndergaard up in the second inning -- something he was very reluctant to do -- and later visited the mound in the third after a one-out walk to Yasmani Grandal, with Justin Turner on second base.

To that point, deGrom had stranded four in two innings, and Collins probably thought, who better to bail out deGrom than the pitcher himself? That faith was rewarded when deGrom got Kike Hernandez to bounce into a 1-6-3 double play.

Evidently, that was the nudge deGrom needed to keep rolling downhill. Despite a second leadoff walk to Joc Pederson, deGrom retired nine of the next 10, minus the obligatory double to the irresistible force, Turner.

Maybe it was just nerves, the standard butterflies, that derailed deGrom early. That would go a long way toward explaining why he didn't appear to be himself. But in completing six innings, and giving the Mets a window to eventually take a 3-2 lead, deGrom displayed a steely veneer capable of weathering the turbulence.

The shaggy hair and laid-back attitude is a front, disguising the assassin deGrom truly is. The way Game 5 began, no one would have predicted six innings from him, not until we saw him walking off the mound for the final time, after the Mets clawed ahead.

There is no better representative of these Mets than deGrom, who showed us he clearly has the heart to match the heat.


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