David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
CHICAGO - The unraveling of Noah Syndergaard Tuesday night started with Kris Bryant pulling the first loose string, like a strand from an old sweater. Syndergaard, despite the usual rookie jitters, was one out away from another clean inning in the third when Bryant slapped a routine grounder at Daniel Murphy.
In most cases, say 95 percent of the time, veteran pitchers already would be seven or eight steps toward the dugout before that ball is scooped up. Even for Murphy, this was a simple play, dare we say automatic. Instead, Murphy did the inexcusable. He underestimated the speed of the Cubs' super-prospect and doomed the Mets' own in the process.
Murphy's lack of urgency, and the loopy throw he delivered, was outraced to the bag by Bryant. Later, Bryant would hit another monster home run into the refurbished leftfield bleachers, but this specific play -- an infield single that traveled a little over 90 feet -- showed what can beat an ace-in-the-making like Syndergaard.
The Cubs believed that rattled Syndergaard, who walked the next hitter, Anthony Rizzo, on four pitches. Maybe only momentarily, but enough to knock him off his axis for a stretch, a few sequences that would take a toll later on.
"Oh, absolutely," Bryant said. "I think anytime you can startle a team, so something they don't expect like that, it sets them off their rhythm. I try to do that. I try to do everything I can to shake up the rhythm of a pitcher.
"He was pitching pretty well up to that point. Making us look pretty bad up there, and I definitely think that made him throw more pitches."
There's no disputing that. Syndergaard needed 18 more pitches to escape the third inning. He kept the Cubs off the scoreboard, but the tally that hurt was his overall pitch count, and the work it took to get clear of the mess Murphy had a hand in creating. For as complimentary as the Cubs were of Syndergaard, the take-away from his performance was that Murphy screw-up, and manager Joe Maddon talked about it as a cautionary tale for his own team.
"It's very significant," Maddon said. "There was no error charged, but it's a play that should be made. That's why errors sometimes are overrated. Physical errors don't bother me. You're going to screw up. It's a tough game. But mental errors will kill you. And you've got to make the plays you're supposed to."
Those are the two conflicting sides of this Mets' team, one that is laying a foundation of elite, young pitching -- but with visible cracks caused by suspect defensive players at critical positions. No starter can be perfect every night -- not Syndergaard, not Matt Harvey, not Jacob deGrom.
But the few mistakes they do make shouldn't be fatal. And with the offensively-challenged Mets, run prevention has never been more crucial. Maddon talked about this philosophy after watching Syndergaard be sabotaged by his own team, but the Mets haven't seemed to grasp it.
"People always talk about pitch counts," Maddon said. "It's about making plays. They're interrelated. They're connected. When you make plays, you pitch deeper into games, your bullpen has less stress. That's what we're shooting for."
The Mets? They aren't even aiming in that direction. Despite the influx of young pitchers, with another in Steven Matz on the way, the Mets have been slow to surround them with suitable defenders -- other than the Gold Glove centerfielder Juan Lagares, who was sidelined Tuesday night with a muscle strain.
So as much as Syndergaard had the ball in his right hand last nightTuesday night, there was only so much he could control. Those extra 18 pitches in that third inning were an epic fail at a time when pitch counts are monitored more closely than the air pressure in Tom Brady's footballs.
The early take-aways? Syndergaard's curve was the star of the night, and his fastball, which ranged from 96-99, got swings and misses on three of the 30 he threw. The Cubs were impressed. Just maybe more with their own guy. "Anytime someone beats out a ground ball like that," Rizzo said, "he can't be too happy about it."
Syndergaard has to hope it won't become a habit.