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Waiting for the Worst

It came at the end of Terry Collins [1]‘s press conference, and might have been funny except for the fact that it wasn’t funny: the small manager with the large personality tried to exit stage left, then had a brief, unhappy colloquy with someone not shown by SNY’s cameras. Collins objected that there hadn’t been any questions about it, then plopped down and snapped that “the puppy dog wants you guys to know that Noah Syndergaard [2]’s seeing the doctor. His elbow flared up on him. That’s why I took him out of the game.”

(Let’s take a moment to observe that while the Mets aren’t out of the business of needlessly belittling Jay Horwitz, they’ve at least found better internal nicknames [3] for him.)

Exit Terry again, this time for real. And cue a sudden U-turn to the familiar confines of Panic City.

Collins’s annoyance was understandable, as was his attempted dodge. (Which isn’t to say either was appropriate.) The rollercoaster Mets had looked robust and feisty against the Pirates, then inept and inanimate against the Braves. So of course they then swept an abbreviated two-game series against the Royals, last seen at Citi Field doing things that need not be spoken of.

The Mets had secured the sweep — and a win in the season series, to extract a positive that hits all of us like a negative — with a tidy, taut 4-3 win. Syndergaard wasn’t his electric self, which is to say he was merely really good, and the two teams battled back and forth, looking for a breach in the other’s defenses.

Asdrubal Cabrera [4] scored the first run in the fourth, racing home on a little dunker by James Loney [5] and getting past the mitt of the redoubtable Salvador Perez [6] through a moundward scurry and a quick reversal to slap the outer margin of home plate with his hand — a run that somehow didn’t involve the apple going skyward.

It wasn’t to last, though: in the top of the inning, Kansas City’s Cheslor Cuthbert [7] stepped to the plate against Syndergaard. Let me take a moment to observe that “Cheslor Cuthbert” is not just a ridiculous baseball name but a ridiculous name, the kind of thing an overeager young D&D player would come up with, spending four hours crafting an intricate backstory for a cleric with four hit points. (Time for a lesson, thinks the DM; this roll for wandering monsters won’t be the last.)

It may be a silly name, but the player rolled a natural 20, and a moment later Cheslor Cuthbert was trotting around the bases to tie the game. Three batters later, Whit Merrifield [8] checked that his boater was at a jaunty angle, buttoned his cardigan and stroked a ball just past Neil Walker [9] for a 2-1 Royals lead. Hip-hip! declared his chums, breaking into valedictory song.

(Seriously, what is it with the Royals and names?)

Ned Yost [10] trued to coax a sputtering Danny Duffy [11] through the fifth inning, only to run afoul of Cabrera, who crashed a two-run homer to return the lead to the Mets’ possession. (Cabrera had a really superb game, helping the Mets win with his bat, glove and baserunning smarts.) The Royals tied it immediately in the top of the sixth, but Matt Reynolds [12] — pressed into service as a left fielder — untied it just as immediately in the bottom, smacking his first career home run off Joakim Soria [13].

That lead held up, and there you had it: scoring in five consecutive half-innings, three lead changes, plenty of excitement, and a victory for the forces of light and good [14].

So yeah, no wonder Terry Collins didn’t want to talk about injuries. He’s been manager of the Mets long enough to know that Syndergaard’s elbow flaring up would mean a question from every reporter in the room — he’d just endured a round table of inquiries about Yoenis Cespedes [15]‘s wrist, and been asked about Zack Wheeler [16]‘s elbow. He’s been in baseball long enough to know that none of those questions would be answerable. He’s seen the thinking around the game change enough to sense he’d have to start answering questions about, say, the wisdom of leaving a young pitcher to go north of 100 pitches with an 11-0 lead [17].

Terry tried to duck the question; Horwitz knew the cover-up would lead to more howling than the crime and didn’t let him.

A few weeks back, I emerged from a college-reunion dinner [18] to see Syndergaard had exited with 2.1 innings under his belt and no earned runs allowed. My first thought was simple and awful: he’s blown out his elbow.

It wasn’t the case, thank goodness. But when Collins scurried away from his parting stink bomb on Wednesday, I had the same thought: he’s blown out his elbow.

It’s not the case this time, either — as Syndergaard himself let us know via Instagram [19]. (What a world!) But I wasn’t shocked to have that thought again. And I won’t be shocked the next time Syndergaard turns away from his delivery with a look of annoyance, or needs something checked out, or seems to be missing a couple of ticks on that ungodly fastball.

Because odds are that sooner or later, this won’t be a false alarm: that little ligament will go, undone by the superhuman feats it’s been witness to. And then Syndergaard will spend a year in a cameo role, followed by a return that will involve a roll of the dice. Just like happened to Matt Harvey [20] and Jacob deGrom [21] and Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz [22] — which is to say, every member of the presumed September rotation except Noah Syndergaard.

I devoutly hope that won’t be true this year or any year. I hope Syndergaard will be one of the outliers, a Tom Seaver [23] or a Nolan Ryan [24] who won the genetic lottery. If so, I’ll even forgive him when he comes back to old-timers’ affairs and grouses that pitchers were a different breed than today’s cosseted, milk-fed semi-athletes, having followed Seaver and Ryan’s lead and mistaken his good fortune for moral fortitude.

That would be better for the Mets and better for Syndergaard, needless to say — even today, slicing open the elbow of a pitcher is no routine thing. But it would be better for us, too. Noah Syndergaard is a dream: simultaneously a videogame played by a kid who’s mastered the cheat codes and a cerebral athlete determined to master the mechanics and tactics of his craft. The problem with dreams is that you wake up and are left facing mundane reality; so far with Syndergaard we’ve been able to shake off the interruptions, hit the pillow and pick up where we left off. We’ll get up soon … but not quite yet, please. Just give us a little longer.