Jacob deGrom faces Fernando Tatis Jr. in MLB TV free game

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Baseball is a team sport, of course. But it’s a team sport based around a one-on-one matchup — batter vs. pitcher.

That battle is at the heart of what makes the game so compelling. And when the batter is a record-shattering young phenom, while the pitcher is a multiple-time Cy Young Award-winning ace who’s pushing the boundaries of what’s possible on the mound? Well, that’s even better, of course.

That’s what we’re getting on Friday night, when the Padres open a three-game series against the Mets at Citi Field at 7:10 p.m. ET. On the mound for New York? Jacob deGrom. At the plate for San Diego? Fernando Tatis Jr. (backed up, of course, by several other strong hitters in a potent lineup).

Even better, the contest is MLB Network’s Showcase Game, as well as one of MLB.TV’s two Free Games of the Day — along with Rangers-Dodgers at 10:10 p.m. ET — so there are multiple ways to tune in to see this epic showdown. (Blackout restrictions apply, although live audio still will be available through MLB.TV in local markets.)

Here is a quick breakdown of the matchup:

How they’re doing
Padres (37-27, 3rd in NL West)
Mets (30-24, 1st in NL East)

The individual matchups are juicy, but let’s not ignore the fact that this is a collision of two teams currently in playoff position. With that said, the Padres actually are in a bit of a slide, having lost eight of their past 11 games to drop behind the Giants and Dodgers in a thrilling division race.

Despite a deluge of injuries, the Mets are 19-11 since an 11-13 start and lead their division by 3 1/2 games. These two teams just split a competitive four-game series in San Diego last week, with the Padres taking the first two games before the Mets evened things.

The matchup on the mound
Padres —
Blake Snell (2-2, 4.83 ERA in 12 starts)
Mets — deGrom (5-2, 0.62 ERA in nine starts)

We’ve mentioned deGrom, whose ERA is the lowest by a pitcher through his first nine starts since earned runs became an official stat in both leagues in 1913. But let’s not ignore the other Cy Young Award winner in the room. Snell just might look back at last Friday’s start against the Mets as a turning point in his frustrating debut season with the Padres. The left-hander held New York scoreless over seven innings, allowed just one hit and struck out 10.

This will be the third time these two have faced each other. In 2019, Tatis went 0-for-3 with a strikeout against deGrom, but when they met last Saturday at Petco Park, Tatis went 1-for-2 with a walk and an opposite-field, hustle double off a 100 mph fastball that was off the outside edge of the zone.

When it came to the free-agent market this past offseason, Mark Melancon did seem a bit forgotten. It wasn’t until mid-February that he found a home, signing a modest one-year deal with the Padres. The 36-year-old right-hander now looks like one of the best acquisitions of the winter, with a 0.66 ERA and MLB-best 19 saves, including two against the Mets last week.

There’s a lot more to deGrom than velocity, obviously. But the velocity is truly stunning. His four-seam fastball has now gotten faster for a fifth consecutive season, reaching 99.2 mph in 2021. deGrom’s 121 pitches 100 mph or faster are roughly 2.5 times as many as every other starting pitcher has this year, combined. In his past two starts, he’s averaged 100.1 mph (May 31) and 100.4 mph (June 5) with his heater, the two best single-game averages of the pitch-tracking era (since 2008) for a starter with at least 25 fastballs thrown.

It’s not just the fastballs, either. Almost everything deGrom throws is hard. Aside from the three curveballs deGrom has used — he typically has no need to go to his fourth offering — he has not thrown a single pitch below 89 mph this season.

Tatis currently has a career OPS+ of 160, a park-adjusted figure for which 100 represents the league average. Only four players in history have done better than that through their age-22 season, with a minimum of 750 plate appearances. The list features Mike Trout and three inner-circle Hall of Famers: Ty Cobb, Stan Musial and Ted Williams. And none of them were shortstops.

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