- Associated Press - Sunday, March 4, 2018

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. (AP) - With at least five necessary hurdles ahead of him, Jacob deGrom is running out of time to be the New York Mets’ starting pitcher on opening day.

The right-hander tossed a 40-pitch bullpen alongside Rafael Montero, A.J. Griffin and Zack Wheeler on Sunday before the Mets’ home game against Washington. He did not, as way anticipated, face any hitters.

DeGrom said two days ago he would be facing batters on Sunday, but somewhere along the line that plan changed. Instead, rehabbing Michael Conforto stepped into the batter’s box and tracked pitches without swinging in the bullpen outside the stadium.

“I honestly did not know what I was doing today. I thought I would probably face batters, but the plan was, I guess, to throw a bullpen. I think the plan is not to anything dumb and make sure everything’s right,” deGrom said.

“I’m looking to feel good, and that’s been the case so far,” said deGrom, who flashed an impressive fastball and didn’t hold anything back as he faced Conforto.

DeGrom was the team’s most consistent and reliable pitcher last year. He went 15-10 with a 3.53 ERA in 31 starts on a club that went 70-92 in Terry Collins’ last season as manager.

The 29-year-old deGrom has been sidelined with lower back stiffness and missed time in camp due to the birth of his daughter. That’s hampered his drive toward getting the nod for the Mets’ first game, at home against St. Louis on March 29, an appearance new pitching coach Dave Eiland said deGrom deserves.

“Absolutely, he’s earned it. Whether he pitches opening day or not, he’s earned it, but we’ve got to be smart about this,” Eiland said.

Eiland said deGrom has “hurdles” to go through and that there’s no good reason to rush him.

He added there are no exceptions on the staff and deGrom will have to face hitters five different times in March before the club opens the season at Citi Field.

“With Jacob deGrom we will not make an exception. That’s stupid,” Eiland said. “We’re not going to be careless just so he can pitch opening day. If it falls where he can, he will because he earned it. He deserves that start.

“But we’re not going to push the envelope and be careless and he starts opening day and doesn’t start again until June. That would be pretty ignorant on our part,” he said.

The plan is for deGrom to get back into a game on Tuesday, but that could be a simulated game facing batters on a back field.

He’ll then need to build up to a higher pitch-count over subsequent spring training starts.

“We’ve got to see where it leads. If he can’t get out there and get built up to 80, 90 pitches, then it’s not going to happen. But is there still time for him to do that? Yes,” Eiland said.

“Every day’s a hurdle. Today we crossed a big hurdle.”

Conforto appreciated the chance to see “electric stuff” as he recovers from shoulder surgery to repair a torn posterior capsule in his left shoulder.

“It looks effortless, and at the same time it has late life to it. His breaking stuff is pretty sharp. Sometimes you can see the hump in the breaking ball, but from Jake today there was no hump,” he said.

“I don’t get to see deGrom on a daily basis, so whenever he’s throwing a side I try to get out there.”

NOTES: LHP Steven Matz struggled again in his second start, giving up five runs on five singles and two walks while getting only two outs vs. Washington. He threw 34 pitches. “My ball was just up really, and I was missing my spot by a few inches. It’s frustrating because I feel healthy,” said Matz, who has 10 earned runs this spring. … SS Amed Rosario, who left Saturday’s game with knee irritation, checked out fine. Manager Mickey Callaway said he should be back in the lineup Tuesday against Houston. . RHP Corey Taylor relieved Matz and recorded an out without a pitch by picking off Rafael Bautista to end the top of the first. . RF Jay Bruce hit his first homer, a shot to right field off RHP Edwin Jackson in the first. “I’m not necessarily concerned with home runs in spring training. I’m never really concerned with home runs at all, to be honest with you. They just kind of happen,” Bruce said. . DH Tim Tebow went 0 for 3 and struck out twice.

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