Citi Field duel shows why the NL Cy Young is a two-horse race

NEW YORK -- As the baseball season draws to a close, awards debates tend to draw life from the players that can perform their best in a stretch run.

A crowd of nearly 40,000 was treated to just that Saturday night at Citi Field.

“That's kind of what I was hoping for,” Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said after his team fell to the New York Mets, 3-0.

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Hyun-Jin Ryu and Jacob deGrom worked in lockstep throughout the evening. Whether they care to admit it, Ryu and deGrom were bidding against each other for the National League Cy Young Award.

Both pitchers worked seven scoreless innings. DeGrom, the reigning Cy Young winner, struck out eight to Ryu’s six. He yielded three hits to Ryu’s two. DeGrom retired 16 in a row before Corey Seager singled in the seventh. Ryu’s streak of 13 consecutive outs ended only because he was lifted for a pinch hitter in the seventh inning.

Jacob deGrom closed the gap on Hyun-Jin Ryu's ERA lead Saturday night at Citi Field (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images).
Jacob deGrom closed the gap on Hyun-Jin Ryu's ERA lead Saturday night at Citi Field (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images).

“If you have a guy like deGrom going against you, you're extra focused and it puts you in a better rhythm,” Ryu said through Dodgers interpreter Bryan Lee. “Going against the top pitcher like deGrom in the league definitely benefits you in terms of staying more focused and having to execute your pitches, so it was a good matchup.”

Ryu allowed two baserunners, neither were able to reach second base. DeGrom kept the NL home run leaders from hitting the ball in the air all but twice -- two Russell Martin pop outs.

“The way I take the mound is to go and put up zeros,” deGrom said. “There’s some starts I wish I could have back, but from here on out, the goal is to put this team in a position to win.”

Ryu seemed to be the frontrunner after an incredible first half which resulted in the starting nod in the All-Star Game after posting a 1.73 ERA in 109 innings. But he needed a 10-day stay on the injured list with a stiff neck at the start of August.

He returned with five scoreless innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks, but quickly began to slip. In four starts entering Saturday night’s bout against the Mets, Ryu allowed 21 runs in 19 innings -- a 9.95 ERA. His ERA rose by nearly a full run from 1.64 to 2.45 over that span.

Ryu’s recent struggles let the field back into the race.

Hyun-Jin Ryu pitched very well Saturday night, but his recent struggles might have cost him the Cy Young Award. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Hyun-Jin Ryu pitched very well Saturday night, but his recent struggles might have cost him the Cy Young Award. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Saturday night marked the 11th time since July that deGrom was able to complete seven innings. His 1.69 ERA since the All-Star break is second-best to St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Jack Flaherty (0.76). His 101 strikeouts are the most in the National League over that span, and his 239 lead the NL overall.

Ryu lowered his ERA to an NL-best 2.35, while deGrom’s dropped to 2.61 -- which ranks third behind the other horse in this race, Atlanta Braves righty Mike Soroka.

The ERA gap Ryu had on deGrom that had been more than a run a month ago is now almost miniscule. DeGrom has the lead on innings pitched, strikeouts, WHIP, WAR and opponent’s batting average.

“It's hard for me to fathom that anybody is better than him out there,” an admittedly biased Mickey Callaway said. “I think there's some strong points that we can all make that deGrom is leading this race.”

So did the Dodgers’ left-hander miss his chance to separate from an already whittled down field?

“It's kind of what you value,” Roberts said. “But it's hard to argue. It's a good debate.”

Max Scherzer leads all NL pitchers in WAR, but he hasn’t been the same in six outings since returning from a back injury. Scherzer was limited to one appearance between July 6 and Aug. 22 and holds a 4.15 ERA in his past six starts.

Soroka has had a fantastic rookie season and will likely receive some votes, but his numbers closer resemble deGrom’s ERA and Ryu’s everything else. Stephen Strasburg has logged more innings than deGrom and nearly as many strikeouts (229), but his 3.49 ERA, while impressive, is well behind Ryu and deGrom’s.

Ryu, Soroka, and pretty soon, Scherzer and Strasburg, might be at a pleasant disadvantage as well.

The Dodgers and Braves have already clinched their spot in the postseason. The Nationals currently occupy the top spot in the wild card. There isn’t much reason for a playoff team to push one pitcher a little extra if it’s needed to move ahead of the pack.

The Mets are still three games out of the second wild card slot. At this point, they’ll probably need deGrom to go out of his comfort zone to get into the postseason. He said that he was “wearing down a little bit” after getting up to 101 pitches after seven innings Saturday.

With about three starts left, an inconsistent bullpen and a need to grab every possible win, deGrom might be tempted to push through in these situations. Pitchers on teams that already clinched, probably won’t.

When deGrom won the award last season, he trailed Scherzer in most categories except ERA. Currently Ryu has deGrom beat in that department. But the gap deGrom had on Scherzer -- 1.70 to Scherzer’s 2.53 -- is much wider than the one Ryu currently holds.

Last season, the Mets argued heavily against the value of a pitcher win, of which deGrom only had 10. That neither ace drew a decision in Saturday night’s showdown proved the unimportance of the win.

But there shouldn’t be much doubt that this has become a much closer race.

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