David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
The Mets would like to pretend their brilliant young rotation is bulletproof, that the laws of physics, combined with the human arm’s vulnerable structure, doesn’t apply to them. The same holds true for anyone who appreciates watching these special pitchers do what they do for the defending NL champs.
But there is no escaping reality. And Terry Collins’ attempt to avoid facing questions about the “elbow discomfort” that forced Noah Syndergaard from Wednesday’s 4-3 win over the Royals did nothing to soften the blow of the Mets’ ace dashing off to see Dr. David Altchek at the Hospital for Special Surgery.
When the media didn’t press Collins on Syndergaard’s fairly ordinary six-inning performance — by his standards anyway — the manager figured the postgame news conference was over. As Collins pushed back his chair from the microphone, however, the team’s PR guru Jay Horwitz gestured to remind him of the glossed-over subject.
“What?” Collins said. “There wasn’t any questions on that . . . ”
Only then did Collins begrudgingly admit that yes, Syndergaard’s elbow “flared-up” and he had to be removed earlier than anticipated. We don’t blame Collins for being grumpy. This was the second time in seven weeks Syndergaard complained of an elbow issue, and the Mets didn’t reveal the first checkup until nine days after it happened. Fortunately, Wednesday’s outcome also was positive as an MRI revealed no structural damage to Syndergaard’s elbow and he’s expected to remain on schedule for next week’s start against the Nats.
Still, with teams rattled by the constant fear of pitching injuries, living in a state of denial seems to be standard operating procedure. And the Mets, sitting on a rare collection of talented arms, have more at stake than most clubs. When it comes to this group, however, heartbreak can feel inevitable.
A scare involving Syndergaard was the nightmare scenario, as predictable as it may have been. There is a toll to pay for throwing a fastball that peaks at 101.3 mph and averages 98.1. Not to mention the savage torque a 90-mph slider puts on his elbow — which was the last pitch Syndergaard delivered Wednesday to get a tapper back to the mound from Cheslor Cuthbert.
The assumption always has been that Syndergaard will need Tommy John surgery at some point. Despite his 6-7 frame, and superhero persona, why should Syndergaard be immune to the same epidemic that has sidetracked hundreds of careers? Just look down the row of lockers along the right wall of the Mets’ clubhouse. Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz are all TJ-surgery vets, with Zack Wheeler still on rehab from it.
As for the starters technically considered healthy by the Mets, they’ve had plenty of things to work through, whether it’s been deGrom’s apparent hangover from last season, Harvey’s spring-training bladder issues or Matz’s own elbow freakout. Even Colon, who at 43 is laughing at Father Time, took a blistering line drive off his right thumb Tuesday on just his fourth pitch of the night. Miraculously, he only suffered a bruise.
Colon was extremely fortunate, but this Syndergaard red flag remains worrisome to a degree. Everyone was so fixated on him Wednesday that even Yoenis Cespedes leaving the game with what was later diagnosed as a mild left wrist sprain seemed secondary. Maybe because Cespedes was able to shrug off a similar pain last season and still rake, so this can be managed as well. Or perhaps the Mets were too in shock from Syndergaard to digest the possibility of serious injuries to both their ace and cleanup hitter.
“We’ve got to keep grinding,” Neil Walker said. “And go with what we’ve got. This is no different than what we’ve been going through.”
Not really. For all the other losses, Syndergaard is the one name that has to stay off the medical reports, the one arm the Mets need to stay intact for a potential return to the World Series. To this point, Syndergaard has defied the odds, bucked the data suggesting his day would come. But there are only so many warning sirens before the storm hits. The Mets can just be thankful it hasn’t arrived yet.