By Jake Mintz
FOX Sports MLB Writer
Mets ace Jacob deGrom was dominant yet again Thursday, but that happens all the time. What was notable was whom exactly he was dominating.
In front of 1,180 fans on Thursday at Roger Dean Stadium in Palm Beach, Florida, the greatest pitcher on planet Earth absolutely diced up the low-A Palm Beach Cardinals. The two-time Cy Young winner faced 10 batters on the evening and struck out eight of them. One reached on an error, and another grounded out.
It isn't abnormal for major leaguers, even top-tier, elite aces such as deGrom, to make rehab starts on their way back from injury. It happens all the time. But the combo of a supersonic deGrom tossing 102 mph, the young, inexperienced nature of the lineup he faced and the particularly vocal Twitter presence of the Palm Beach Cardinals made this one of the most memorable rehab starts of all time.
The madness actually started earlier in the week, on Sunday, when the Palm Beach players found out that they’d be facing a different rehabbing Met, Seth Lugo, on Tuesday.
Let’s let Cardinals pitcher John Beller take it from here.
"We were like, ‘That’ll be pretty cool. Lugo is pretty good. He’s a big league starter,'" Beller said. "Then he came out and threw a four-pitch first inning and then went down to the pen and threw 35 more pitches, then left. And we were like, ‘Oh, that was pretty uneventful. I wish we got to see more.'"
Well, they'd definitely see more gas because it just so happened that the following evening, they were matched up against another rehabbing Mets hurler: Noah Syndergaard.
Palm Beach leadoff man and shortstop prospect Masyn Winn elaborated.
"Whenever we figured out that [we were facing Syndergaard], we were like, ‘Holy s---, that’s Noah Syndergaard, dog.' Like, we’re about to go face Thor," Winn said.
Beller continued: "At first, everyone was like, well, if we only see an inning again like Lugo, it won’t be such a big deal. Then Thor goes out there and throws four innings and carves. I’ve obviously been to MLB games growing up and stuff, but being in the dugout, being able to watch Syndergaard from that close, was totally different.
"The biggest difference is that he didn’t even look like he was trying. He was out there, looking like he was flippin’ it in a bullpen and just blowing dudes away."
That sounds like a pretty wild couple of matchups for these low-A players, many of whom are getting their first taste of professional game action this season. An inning against Lugo, a glimpse of Thor and a few great memories to tell their high school buddies about.
But then things got even more bonkers.
Beller: "During the game on Wednesday, our manager came up to me and said, ‘Hey, Papi, you’re going up against deGrom tomorrow. And I didn’t believe it because it wasn’t published anywhere yet. And he was, ‘I’ll bet you a bottle of wine.’ I thought he was lying, so I took that bet, thought he was just pullin’ my chain. Sure enough, within a few hours after the game, it’s blowing up on Twitter. ‘Jacob deGrom will be making a rehab start against low-a Palm Beach,’ and I’m like, ‘You gotta be s---ting me.’ I immediately knew it was gonna be one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced."
Winn: "We got a scouting report at around 1 am., and it said, ‘deGrom fastball 100 to 102, slider 94 to 95’, so that was cool. I think most people on the team went on ‘MLB The Show’ and pitched with him and hit against him to see his pitches. That’s really all you can do. Because he’s pretty much a video game character. And when you got up there at the plate, that’s pretty much how it works."
As the "deGrom in Palm" news spread Wednesday night and into Thursday morning, demand for tickets skyrocketed, as is to be expected for the best pitcher in the world. The Cardinals are operating at 20% capacity because of COVID restrictions, but for the deGrom game, they made more tickets available.
Beller: "Once it was published that deGrom was starting Saturday, I was like, this game has to sell out. I knew the atmosphere was gonna be great. I walked out there about an hour before the game to get loose, and there’s just a swarm of people down the left-field line watching deGrom toss, and I was just, like, this is so cool. Obviously, being able to be under the lights with the most real crowd environment since my last game in college was awesome."
Winn: "I mean, It was dollar beer Thursday. It was already poppin’, but with Jacob deGrom coming into town, with low-A ticket prices, I mean, c’mon now. Say less. We had drunk fans enjoying the hell out of themselves. It was great."
With easily the most lit crowd in Palm Beach Cardinals history, Jacob deGrom, the undisputed best hurler in the game right now, took the mound in the bottom of the first against 19-year-old Masyn Winn, a talented 2020 second-round draft pick with 60 career plate appearances.
Winn: "Once you get over the fact that it’s Jacob deGrom, you go up there, and you try to lock in, but it was pretty hard, man, not gonna lie.
"So I led off, and I was thinking, ‘He’s not gonna try that hard. He’s just gonna try and hit spots, go through the motions.’ I really wanted to swing first pitch because I thought it was gonna be a fastball, and I didn’t wanna have to see the slider. So I swung, and I fouled it off, and I looked up at the board, and it said 100. So that was nice."
Beller: "Lugo and Syndergaard brought like 85 percent intensity, but deGrom clearly went out with the intention of absolutely blowing us away. It was wild. The second pitch of the game was 102 on the scoreboard gun, and the whole dugout was like, ‘What the hell are we supposed to do with that?’"
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Somehow, Winn made contact and reached on a throwing error by the Mini Mets’ second baseman. On first base against all odds, the young Texan had only one thing on his mind: second base.
Winn: "I got a pretty big lead, and he just picked up his leg, and I went. I figured he ain’t worried about me. He’s trying to get strikeouts right now. That’s all he really cares about. But when I got onto second base, he stared into my soul for about five seconds. And then I stole third, and he stared into my soul again. And I won’t even lie: He’s a very intimidating dude."
Beller: "Our dude is scurrying off second and swiping third. DeGrom doesn’t even look back at him, doesn’t even give a s---, just delivers the pitch. Just 102 for a strikeout. It was a hilarious juxtaposition of where our worlds are at right now. On one hand, we have a guy trying to up his stolen bases stats to try and move up the levels. On the other hand, you have the best pitcher in the world not caring, just trying to get his work in."
Winn's reaching third was far and away the closest the Baby Cardinals got to scoring off deGrom, as he proceeded to strike out the side in the second and third innings. Beller, while matching the two-time Cy Young winner strikeout-for-strikeout in the early going, was watching every moment of deGrom’s performance.
"Normally when we’re on offense, I sit on the lower level of the bench and don’t watch the game as much, but [Thursday], it would have been a crime if I didn’t watch," he said. "It was just one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced. Obviously, we faced Lugo and Syndergaard, but deGrom is so clearly in his own universe. I knew it was gonna be good, but I didn’t think it was gonna be like that."
Winn was also struck by the out-of-this-world dominance deGrom displayed against Palm Beach.
"He’s 100 percent the best pitcher on the planet. I don’t think anyone else can do what he does. He’s effortlessly throwing 100 mph, spotting up every pitch. Especially down here, he leaned into that fear factor. That dude is legit, for real for real.
"When I first saw we were facing him on Twitter, I thought it was a joke. Oh, like, we already saw two MLB guys against us, that’s funny. And then we got out there, and the dude was legitimately 6-foot-4, absolutely slingin’ it. It was wild."
Both Winn and Beller were giddy, as stoked as any player I’ve ever interviewed, eager to talk about their brush with greatness. Beller emphasized to me how long that humid night in Palm Beach will stick with him.
"I’ll always be able to tell my kids, my grandkids, that the guy with the Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown? I squared off against him," he said. "I had more strikeouts that day than Jacob deGrom. So cool."
Jake Mintz is the louder half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball analyst for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. You can follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz. For more up-to-date news on all things MLB, click here to register for alerts on the FOX Sports app!