Picture this. Forty-two thousand fans pack into Citi Field during a season like few others for a game that will be second to none. Let’s make it a 7:10 p.m. start for dramatic effect. The celebrations have been raucous in Queens all year, but this one’s already started and a pitch hasn’t been thrown yet. “Simple Man” is blaring over the sound system, but Lynard Skynard couldn’t get a louder ovation if they were playing it live. Jacob deGrom is on the mound.

For most of their lives, these fans in attendance have served as the defenders of a laughing stock, a New York Mets franchise that throws away seasons, pays retirees in their fifties and gets defrauded for billions. They hadda believe, right? Now, these fans represent the elite, one of the richest teams in baseball with a roster to match. In an oligarchical sport, they finally found the patron with the deepest pockets, and their team is one of a few privileged World Series contenders. Now, their hero is finally back on the field.

For a team that has had a phenomenal season with plenty of meaningful victories, it may seem unlikely that the mere presence of a player could evoke more hope or excitement than any single result. But those who can’t envision this scenario are merely unaware of the untethered hysteria surrounding deGrom, not just within the Mets organization and fanbase but across Major League Baseball.

As deGrom has worked his way back from an injury, his second since the summer of 2021, baseball fans have followed his progress meticulously. His rehab starts in the minor leagues resemble showcases, not warmups. After tickets sold out for deGrom’s scheduled game on July 14 for the Triple-A Syracuse Mets, they were reportedly selling online for more than $300. The average price to attend a 2022 Miami Marlins game at the start of the season was $40.

It may not be his first game back for the team. The pitch count may be short and he may not go five innings. He might even get shelled, as he did on Wednesday afternoon in Triple-A against the Omaha Storm Chasers. But at some point soon, deGrom will make his homecoming start at Citi Field, and the response from the sold-out crowd will be thunderous. It’s important to understand why.

In his early days as a mortal with a 94 MPH fastball, deGrom was still one of the best pitchers in baseball and served as a key contributor in some very talented Mets rotations. He made the All-Star game in 2015, his second season in the league, and proved integral during the team’s run to the World Series later that year. His 13-strikeout game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in his playoff debut set the tone as the Mets rolled through the National League before falling to the Kansas City Royals.

After a few more solid years on middling Mets teams, deGrom became a premier pitcher in the 2018 season. With an average fastball velocity of 96 MPH and a nearly unhittable slider, he began playing at a level few have ever reached, earning a mind-boggling 1.70 ERA. In 2019, he was throwing even harder without losing any of his frame-perfect control. While the Mets struggled at the plate and provided deGrom little to no run support in either season, he still managed to win the Cy Young Award in both years with a combined record of 21-17.

After two Cy Youngs and a successful shortened season during the pandemic, deGrom began earning comparisons to some of the greats — Pedro Martinez, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson. But by the summer of 2021, even the experts began to run out of comparisons.

Through 15 starts, deGrom had a 1.08 ERA and was consistently throwing his fastball 99 MPH. By June 11, 2021, Rays pitcher Shane McClanahan had thrown 10 pitches over 100 MPH, the second most for a starting pitcher that season. DeGrom was first — with 121 pitches. As SNY pointed out, his ERA+ at that point in the season was so astronomically high that it defied explanation.

Those who worried that it was unsustainable were right, as deGrom suffered minor arm strain in April and a major injury in July that ended his season. After two starts in spring training this year, he suffered yet another arm injury that has kept him out of a Mets uniform since.

While he has been away, the Mets have gone from pretenders to contenders, as new owner Steve Cohen continues to import talent. As of Wednesday afternoon, the team has a 60-37 record and is doing everything it can to hold off the Atlanta Braves in the NL East. Max Scherzer has been one of the best substitute aces in the history of baseball and new faces like Starling Marte and Mark Canha have bolstered the old guard.

The trade deadline may bring in even more talent as the Mets attempt to make their first postseason push since 2015. Regardless of who they bring in though, no single piece will be more important than deGrom. If the team is going to win the World Series, “Simple Man” will need to be coming out of those speakers.

Barring any further setbacks, deGrom will make his return to Citi Field sometime soon, and baseball fans need to be ready for what could be the defining moment of the season. One of the most dominant pitchers in the history of the sport is about to join a team on the brink of a championship, and three months of his usual production may make the difference.

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