Jacob deGrom was giving the Mets and their fans exactly what they wanted to see on Wednesday: carving through the Atlanta Braves lineup, extending his consecutive scoreless innings streak to 18⅓, and simply showing some of the best pitching of his career.
He pitched around a two-out single to complete the fourth inning. And then, it all gave way to one of the worst possible sights for the team: deGrom, the Mets’ best pitcher, heading into the clubhouse early.
DeGrom, who exited Wednesday’s 7-0 loss after only four innings and 46 pitches, had a hyperextended right elbow, the Mets said later. It was unclear exactly how he hurt the elbow, but the injury is concerning for several reasons: deGrom throws with his right arm, that right elbow has undergone two operations in the past, and he is the best starter in a rotation that has been mostly carried by him and Noah Syndergaard.
The injury just heaped more gloom on a dispiriting night for deGrom’s club. The loss, the fifth in their last seven games, knocked the Mets (17-11) off their perch atop the National League East for the first time since the first week of the season, replaced by the much-improved Braves (18-11).
While it was not obvious at what point deGrom hurt the arm, some observers noted that he had grimaced slightly when batting in the bottom of the third inning. DeGrom, who bats left-handed, struck out, but if anything affected him at that point it did not prevent him from taking the mound the next inning.
Others pointed out that deGrom had grimaced when he gave up a two-out single to Nick Markakis in the top of the fourth. DeGrom still finished the inning, hitting 94 miles per hour on fastballs to Tyler Flowers, who grounded out. DeGrom did not pitch again.
Relief pitcher Paul Sewald came on and tossed three innings but coughed up three runs on five hits. The Braves took the lead in the sixth inning on a single by Freddie Freeman and piled on more runs against Robert Gsellman and Sewald over the next two innings, highlighted by home runs by Ender Inciarte and Johan Camargo.
On offense, the Mets produced only four baserunners against starting pitcher Sean Newcomb, who lasted seven innings, and the Braves bullpen.
It was unclear immediately after the game how much time deGrom, who has a team-best 1.87 earned run average, would miss. Regardless, it was the most significant injury to befall the Mets this season. DeGrom is a more significant player than relief pitcher Anthony Swarzak (oblique injury), and catchers Travis d’Arnaud (season-ending Tommy John surgery) and Kevin Plawecki (expected to return later this month from a hairline fracture in his left hand).
Since the start of the 2014 season, in which he was named the N.L. Rookie of the Year, deGrom has been the Mets’ best starting pitcher. He was named an All-Star in 2015, and he was the only Mets starting pitcher to remain unscathed during their entire injury-marred 2017 season, notching his first 200-inning campaign.
DeGrom’s right elbow, however, had been an issue in the past. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010, and he had another operation near the end of the 2016 season to move a troublesome ulnar nerve.
If there is any encouragement for deGrom and the Mets, it is that he has proven capable of bouncing back from elbow ailments, both more significant than his current affliction.
Before he departed, he had been throwing a vintage start, attacking the potent Braves lineup with his array of biting breaking balls and fastballs up in the strike zone. Over the years, he has become one of the best in baseball at pitching to the top of the strike zone to neutralize the growing trend of hitters altering their swings to launch fly balls and home runs.
But now, deGrom may need some time to rest and heal. The Mets rotation, the backbone of the team, has received uneven performances from Zack Wheeler, Steven Matz, Matt Harvey and Jason Vargas, who made his season debut last weekend. Seth Lugo, Gsellman and Harvey — all former starting pitchers now in the bullpen — may be among the options to move back into the rotation if deGrom misses time.