If it can be about me for a moment, I’d like to recap a win one of these nights.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about Noah Syndergaard. Late last year I started telling anyone who’d listen that I thought he could wind up as the best of the Mets’ fabulous five, which was no small thing to say. I just didn’t think it would be this soon.
It starts with that tremendous arsenal, of course: that armor-piercing fastball with movement, the ungodly slider, the rapidly improving change. In Syndergaard’s first start against Kansas City, I took to Twitter in awe after Noah unleashed what was identified as a 95 MPH slider on poor Kendrys Morales — a pitch that was science fiction when I was a kid. That slider began a confrontation both pivotal and mercilessly quick: Syndergaard threw two more of them to Morales, prompting Ned Yost to say admiringly that no man alive could have hit those pitches, with none other than George Brett backing him up.
Syndergaard was just as good tonight — 12 Ks and 26 swinging strikes, 15 of them on that evil slider. A night after Steven Matz couldn’t put the Marlins’ hitters away, Syndergaard sometimes seemed to be toying with them.
But it’s about more than stuff. Last summer, Syndergaard hit a bump in his development — he’d rampage through a lineup until the third or fourth inning, then fall into predictable patterns, get ambushed and struggle to regain his footing. There was no particular shame in that — it’s a wake-up call that arrives for nearly every young fireballer. You’ve come this far by throwing, but now you need to start pitching. Some of those young fireballers never figure it out — Victor Zambrano and Mike Pelfrey immediately come to mind. Others do, but it takes a while for them to reprogram their brains. Particularly for pitchers, baseball is all about routine and repetition — arm angles and grips and stride lengths and release points and a dozen other things that all have to be executed flawlessly over and over again. It’s hard to accept that something which has worked for a decade or more no longer does; it’s a lot harder to find something new that will.
Syndergaard — with help from Dan Warthen — figured it out in a few weeks. Come October, he was dominant on the biggest stage the sport has to offer. His acumen and toughness can be overlooked. Syndergaard doesn’t have Matt Harvey‘s gunfighter glower or Jacob deGrom‘s poker face, and for all his size, there’s something a bit soft and even doe-eyed about him out there. He can look a little tentative, but that’s an object lesson in that stuff being mostly eyewash, just another exhibition from baseball’s well-stocked phrenology cabinet. Syndergaard’s smart — I did a double take last year when he likened his mechanics to those of a trebuchet — and he isn’t tentative in the least. He’s armed not just with absurd pitches but also with a sense of how to go about his business, an eagerness to learn to be even better, and a willingness to get mean if it’ll help.
He’s a pitcher, so you never know what the future will hold. But if I were him — and my oh my wouldn’t that be fun — I’d keep a shelf clear in the den for the hardware that’s likely to come his way.
For all his talent, though, Syndergaard can’t do everything. He didn’t win tonight, partially because the Marlins clustered some hits but mostly because the Mets’ batters couldn’t collect enough hits to cluster.
They looked like they were going to, with Jose Fernandez uncharacteristically out of sorts in the early innings, slump-shouldered and dragging around the mound. But Fernandez escaped and figured things out, and by the middle innings he was flashing his trademark grin as Met after Met trudged back to the dugout. (The admiring smile he gave Syndergaard after seeing one of those sliders was particularly fun, a tip of the cap during combat from one ace to another.)
Syndergaard left with the game tied, and Dee Gordon came along and outlasted Jim Henderson in a 16-pitch duel that was Dunstonesque, to recall a happier AB. The moment Gordon reached first I knew we were doomed: Henderson was low on bullets and the fight had barely started; he couldn’t command his fastball; the Marlins had been authoring cerebral at-bats even when overmatched by Syndergaard (damn you, new hitting coach Barry Bonds); the Mets clearly were never going to score again; and, well, it was the goddamn Marlins. We’re blessed to have Thor, but year after year the Marlins are two dozen maddening Lokis.
It was no fun being right. In situations like that it never is.
But at least we got some fun out of it. Besides a pretty darn good game, there was the sight of Lucas Duda throwing a strike to Travis d’Arnaud to nail Derek Dietrich at the plate, a better-late-than-never combination that was greeted warmly rather than derisively by the fans. It was also a freebie: Ichiro Suzuki had been out at first, and Dietrich’s run would have come off the board after a challenge anyway. This way Ichiro got a free hit on the way to 3,000 and Duda got a bit of redemption.
Oh, and we got to marvel at Syndergaard. Whatever may come this year, that’ll be grounds for celebration every fifth day.