The situation cried for a fastball, and not too long before this July night in Los Angeles, Noah Syndergaard would have blindly obliged. But he had evolved. So as he sorted through the ways he might extricate himself from trouble, he knew what he wanted to do.
He got the sign from Kevin Plawecki. With a full count against the dangerous Yasiel Puig, the catcher called for a curveball. Syndergaard did not hesitate.
Latest Mets stories
"I was feeling good," he said Thursday on the eve of the start of his life. "And the results were exactly what I wanted."VoteSwing or take: Mets and potential free agentsInteractiveMeet the 2016 Mets
Puig struck out, flailing at what Mets manager Terry Collins had dubbed "the hook from hell." With that moment, Syndergaard carved out a link on his evolutionary chain.
It is in this growth that the Mets now stake their entire season.
In one summer, the Mets transformed themselves, restored hope to a jaded fan base and wiped away eight seasons of darkness. But now that they trail the Royals 2-0 in the World Series, their season of redemption rests wholly on an imposing 23-year-old Texan who only recently began to see himself as a true big-league pitcher.
History paints a bleak picture should the Mets lose.
The World Series has been played 111 times. Of those, 23 teams have fallen into a 3-0 deficit in a series. Not one has rallied to win the championship.
Only four times has a team even avoided a sweep. That hasn't happened since 1937, when the Giants fell to the Yankees in five games.
"You can't be too focused on it's a World Series game," said Syndergaard, who has a 2.77 ERA in three postseason appearances.
Syndergaard arrived in 2012 as a secondary piece in a trade. When the Mets dangled Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, the Blue Jays were the only team willing to part with a catcher, Travis d'Arnaud. He was the centerpiece, with the Mets going back and forth on whether to target Syndergaard or Aaron Sanchez. They settled on the flame-throwing righthander.
"The amount of confidence that I've gained throughout this entire season and the journey has been an unbelievable experience," Syndergaard said.
Nearly eight months ago, during a mundane scrimmage in spring training, Syndergaard wore his immaturity on his plate. Players were informed that attendance was mandatory, but Syndergaard was found munching on his lunch in the clubhouse. It drew the ire of David Wright, who lectured him, and Bobby Parnell, who tossed his plate of food in the trash.
Now, Wright's first career trip to the World Series hinges on Syndergaard's broad shoulders.
"He's throwing the ball about as well as anybody possibly can," Wright said. "When you've got that kind of stuff, the way he's been locating, he's been tough. So we've got a ton of confidence in him."
That confidence spilled out on the team's flight from Chicago after the Mets' NLCS triumph. The four-game sweep gave the Mets their choice of whom to start in Game 1. Syndergaard was considered.
Syndergaard version 1.0 might have stood little chance against the Royals, who have proved all season that they are impervious to fire. No other team has been able to punish fastballs that roar at 95 mph and above like the Royals, a fact that got so much attention that both Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom shied away from blazing their fastballs during the first two games.
Syndergaard version 2.0 brings much more to the table.
Yes, there still is fire. During the regular season, his fastball averaged 97.1 mph, making him the hardest thrower in baseball among those with at least 100 innings. In the playoffs, that figure jumped to 98.9 mph, including his postseason debut against the Dodgers in which he consistently hit triple digits.
But Syndergaard's secondary offerings have been just as lethal, an arsenal that includes a devastating curve, a slider and a changeup.
"I think you see now a guy that trusts his stuff," Michael Cuddyer said. "Obviously, you should when you throw 98, 97, 100 miles an hour. But also the secondary and third pitches as well."
And postseason pressure? "When I started in L.A. [in NLDS Game 2], I thought it was going to be a totally, completely different game,'' Syndergaard said. "But in reality, it's the same game, a little louder, a little bit different atmosphere.''
The defining moments in Syndergaard's maturation are clear. There was the spring training incident, one that he apologized for and quickly put behind him. There was the Sunday night in New York against the Nationals, a game the Mets needed to win as they attempted to beat out Washington for the NL East title.
And there was the night in Los Angeles when Puig stood in the batter's box, geared up to whack a fastball, only to get a wicked curve.
Said Collins: "That was a major-league pitch made in a major-league situation by a 22-year-old kid who was learning how to pitch here."