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Yes, there are the performances that all but demand to be commemorated with bright yellow highlight ink. Jacob deGrom specializes in those. The last two games he’s pitched, he made a run at Tom Seaver’s record of 10 straight strikeouts, then added a 15-K, zero-walk, two-hit gem six days later against the Nationals.
Those are remarkable.
But when you have a pitcher like deGrom, what’s more remarkable are the random days and nights when he is merely excellent, when he simply shows up and does his job better than anyone else. The Mets have seen this before. Dwight Gooden was like that from 1984 until around 1988 or so. The routine was so good it became expected.
Seaver, of course, specialized in it.
Seaver, on any given fifth day, could turn in a job so remarkable — yet so remarkably similar to the one that came before and the two that came after — that what you expected with your price of admission was routine dominance, as silly as those two words look next to each other.
I decided to take a close look at a routine Seaver start from right around this time of the year 50 years ago, April 1971. As any true Seaver aficionado knows, ’71 was Seaver’s greatest season, even if it didn’t culminate in a Cy Young Award as 1969, ’73 and ’75 did.
Wins were still paramount then, and Fergie Jenkins had 24 of them that year to Seaver’s 20, so it was Jenkins who got the nod despite Seaver trouncing him in ERA (1.76-2.77), strikeouts (289 — a new record for right-handers — to 263) and WHIP (0.946-1.049). But even Seaver later conceded he never reached those heights again.
This will sound familiar to you: in Seaver’s 35 starts that year the Mets averaged only 3.97 runs on his behalf. He made 12 starts in which the Mets scored 0, 1 or 2 runs.
The game I picked — Friday, April 16 — the Mets scored exactly once, on a fourth-inning home run by Donn Clendenon off Pirates ace Dock Ellis. It was a raw day, 46 degrees at first pitch, which came at 2:15 p.m. — in those days , the Mets never played a night game until after May 1.
The Pirates, you may know, won the World Series that year. They won 97 games, took the NL East by seven full games, finished 14 ahead of the 83-79 Mets who tied for third. They were a powerhouse lineup anchored by Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell, a team nicknamed “The Lumber Company” because of its offensive prowess that included Richie Hebner, Al Oliver and Dave Cash.
Seaver gave them three hits that day, only one of them — an Oliver smash through the box in the seventh — that would’ve raised anyone’s exit velocity antennae if those even existed 50 years ago. He struck out 14. He walked none. Not one Pirate reached second base the whole game. He threw 114 pitches. He reached three balls in a count exactly once.
“That was a good, strong Tom Seaver game,” is the way Tom Seaver described the tidy 2-hour, 3-minute clinic. “I don’t think I can pitch much better than that.”
Gil Hodges, the Mets’ hard-to-impress manager, was so impressed that he joined first-person Seaver in describing third-person Seaver.
“When Tom Seaver is being Tom Seaver,” Hodges said, “he’s the best pitcher in the National League, the best in baseball, one of the best I’ve ever seen.”
His pitching coach? Well, they almost had to revive Rube Walker with smelling salts after he watched Seaver mow the Bucs down: “God,” he said, “he’s tough to hit.”
Seaver left the Pirates shaking their heads.
“He has enough smoke to start a forest fire,” said Stargell, who whiffed twice.
“It’s tough enough to hit Seaver on a good day,” said Clemente, who fanned three times, including staring at a fastball at the knees, on the outside corner, to end the game. “On a day when it’s cold and windy that’s damn near impossible.”
The shutout gave Seaver a streak of 20 straight scoreless innings, and he would extend that by 6 ²/₃ more five days later when he beat the Reds, 5-2, and that was the longest scoreless stretch of Seaver’s Mets career. It was one random game out of an extraordinary season and an extraordinary baseball life.
Jacob deGrom takes the ball Wednesday night against the Red Sox.
That sentence holds as much possibility as any baseball sentence possibly could.
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