David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Whenever Noah Syndergaard pitches, everyone in the ballpark has the same routine. The eyes go from the 6-6 giant on the mound to the white blur traveling to the plate, then quickly to the scoreboard.
Checking the radar-gun readings during a Syndergaard start is an integral art of the Thors-Day experience. Even for opposing fans. Last October, the Dodgers’ faithful couldn’t keep themselves from ooh-ing and aah-ing each time Syndergaard registered 100 mph.
So despite the Mets’ 5-3 victory over the Reds, it was a little less fun Monday night at Citi Field when a technical glitch prevented Syndergaard’s velocity from appearing on the rightfield display. Out of habit, we kept looking anyway but ultimately were forced to rely on the Reds’ desperate swings to tell us what the radar gun wouldn’t.
But there was more to the story with Syndergaard, who was out of sorts during his bullpen warm-up and never really featured his true video-game slider, the 95-mph bender many believe is an unhittable pitch.
“I just didn’t have the best command tonight,” Syndergaard said.
Fortunately for the Mets, a slightly-off Syndergaard still is impressive, and a 98- or 99-mph fastball sufficed until he had a better feel for his breaking pitches — especially his slider — later on.
Syndergaard’s line was ordinary by his lofty standards: seven hits and three runs in 62⁄3 innings, nine strikeouts with no walks. But in protecting the Mets’ 3-1 lead during the middle innings, on two occasions he whiffed a pair of Reds with runners in scoring position.
“He’s that kind of kid,” Terry Collins said. “He knows when he needs something, he reaches back to get it.”
Entering Monday night, Syndergaard had thrown an astonishing 43.5 percent of his pitches (124 of 285) over 97 mph, according to Baseball Savant. Fangraphs computed that he was averaging MLB’s highest velocity on all of his repertoire: 98.4 fastball, 92.4 slider, 90.0 changeup and 82.9 curveball.
Syndergaard wasn’t at the height of his powers against the Reds, and he rode his fastball more than usual early on. But the nine strikeouts got him to 38 through his first four starts, matching Pedro Martinez’s team record from 2005. Joining Martinez is good company. And you get the sense Syndergaard will be up there with a few more elite names as his career progresses.
But the Reds managed to chip away at Syndergaard until Antonio Bastardo ultimately let him down in the seventh inning. The seven hits were all singles, and none of them left the infield until a pair finally found deeper grass in the sixth inning.
The Reds scored their first run when the fleet-footed Billy Hamilton reached on a bunt single, stole two bases and trotted home on Zack Cozart’s sacrifice fly.
In the sixth, the Reds had two more stolen bases to put runners at second and third. But Syndergaard fanned Devin Mesoraco with a 92-mph slider and then rifled three straight sliders past Adam Duvall to stifle the threat.
It took Syndergaard an unusually long time to get loose Monday night, and he credited pitching coach Dan Warthen with some key between-inning counseling.
The Reds did, however, expose one of Syndergaard’s few weaknesses: his vulnerability to the running game. A power pitcher of Syndergaard’s size has a lot of moving parts, and it didn’t help that catcher Travis d’Arnaud was dealing with a sore right shoulder that forced him to be replaced by Kevin Plawecki in the eighth inning.
The dominant Syndergaard is more accustomed to having the bases clear when he’s on the mound, so the Reds’ aggressive nature definitely rattled him some. They stole five bases with him in the game.
“It was kind of annoying,” Syndergaard said.
Syndergaard, who threw a season-high 107 pitches, labored a bit more than we’ve been used to seeing this season. But the attitude, the swagger, still was there for every one of them. While teammates have described Syndergaard as something out of a video game, and his nickname is borrowed from the god of thunder, he is human. Fortunately for the Mets, Syndergaard is a human who still throws 99 when he’s not having his best day.
Now the Mets just have to get their radar gun fixed in time for his next start.