David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
JUPITER, Fla. - Midway through Wednesday's game, their work done for the afternoon, a few Marlins hitters retreated to the air-conditioned clubhouse beyond leftfield to cool off.
The humidity baking Roger Dean Stadium wasn't really the problem. It was the Mets' smoke-throwing duo of Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard that made them uncomfortable for six innings, the relentless barrage of fastballs ranging from 96 to 99 mph. Over and over.
"That [stuff] ain't fair," one Marlin said. "They need to give us aluminum bats or something."
Wishful thinking. Knowing who was on the mound, Wednesday must have felt like looking down the barrel of a gun for the Marlins -- from the wrong end. Harvey being Harvey, most of the attention focused on the Mets' recovering ace. Truth be told, Syndergaard made even more of an impression, maybe because the Marlins previously were unfamiliar with the 6-6 blond giant who threw "thunderbolts."
That was more appropriate than the Marlins even realized given Syndergaard's "Thor" moniker -- it hasn't caught on around the majors yet. But they didn't talk like they were hoping he becomes a household name any time soon. Syndergaard struck out five in his 22/3 scoreless innings and allowed only one hit -- Reid Brignac's soft roller to third that a charging Ruben Tejada couldn't convert.
The Marlins found themselves in a fight during every at-bat, trying to gear up for Syndergaard's high-90s heat while having to deal with a sharp-breaking curve ball that dipped to the low 80s. The biggest knock against Syndergaard had been his command -- not an unusual complaint for a pitcher still learning on the job. But he had no trouble hitting targets Wednesday, other than an occasional blip when he maybe got a little too pumped up.
"Great stuff plays," Terry Collins said afterward, "but when you locate, you can be special."
The Mets anticipate that for Syndergaard, and this was a promising glimpse into what he could deliver at Citi Field before too long. In the fourth inning, Syndergaard froze Jarrod Saltalamacchia with a 3-and-2 fastball (97 mph) that skimmed the lower edge of the strike zone. In the fifth, Cole Gillespie whiffed when he couldn't check his swing on an 84-mph curveball. Giancarlo Stanton also was fooled badly when he took a huge hack at a nasty curve -- maybe cheating after getting 99 the pitch before -- and later popped up to center on a fastball.
"My command was pretty spot-on, I thought," Syndergaard said. "I felt really relaxed."
Syndergaard also seemed to get better and finished strong in the sixth. He rallied back from 2-and-0 to whiff Michael Morse after a seven-pitch duel that ended with the Marlins' slugger flailing badly at a curveball. Syndergaard also dispatched Martin Prado, the former Yankee, with only four pitches, the last another great curve. By then, it appeared to be an unfair fight.
One scout was impressed by the movement on Syndergaard's fastball, but he had the luxury of tracking it from a safe distance -- in the stands behind the backstop. Morse, however, was too close for comfort. When we asked him about what he saw from Syndergaard's heater, Morse smiled and shrugged.
"It was coming too hard to tell," Morse said. "It was definitely a battle with him. He really did a good job executing his off-speed pitches, too."
The curveball that got Morse was basically perfect. He was so far out in front, Morse had no chance of making contract. But if he took the pitch, it would have been a called strike three. That's the kind of day Syndergaard was having.
"I thought it was a really positive outing for Noah," pitching coach Dan Warthen said.
A week earlier, Syndergaard was embroiled in the embarrassing Lunch-Gate, when he was chewed out by David Wright and Bobby Parnell for eating in the clubhouse during the Mets' intrasquad game. Parnell may have dumped his lunch in the trash, but Syndergaard didn't let that soil his reputation.
If that was another step in a budding ace's maturation, then consider Wednesday's outing a sizable leap.
This was the second time Syndergaard piggy-backed on a Harvey start but the first time he was able to step out from behind the Dark Knight's shadow. Overlooked last Friday at Tradition Field, Syndergaard is getting closer to having the big stage to himself for a change.