David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
PHILADELPHIA - As of Tuesday, the current playoff scenario had Game 1 of the Division Series between the Mets and Dodgers at Citi Field. The question then becomes, where does that leave Noah Syndergaard?
It might not be a front-burner issue at the moment. There are 37 games left and the Mets haven't clinched anything yet. But team officials already have discussed using Syndergaard out of the bullpen as an eighth inning-type reliever in the playoffs, especially if they host the first two games of the NLDS.
Like Manhattan real estate, it's all about location with Syndergaard, and the Mets believe his struggles away from Citi are as legit as the data indicates. Syndergaard had a weird night at Citizens Bank Park, where he struck out nine in five innings, got burned by a Kelly Johnson error, trimmed his travel ERA from 5.05 to 4.91 and backed into his first victory on the road (1-5).
Also of significance, Syndergaard's first two innings -- usually a sizable pothole for him on the road -- were clean as he struck out four of seven Phillies. The one bad inning came in the third, when Syndergaard gave up a 3-0 lead on a pair of homers, the second a two-run blast to Ryan Howard after Johnson's error handed the Phillies a fourth out.
That helped drive up Syndergaard's pitch count to 96 after five innings and he was replaced by pinch hitter Michael Cuddyer during the Mets' three-run sixth. The Mets aren't concerned that Syndergaard's road woes are some incurable affliction. Pitching coach Dan Warthen described getting used to the unfamiliar mounds and different "visuals" as part of the 22-year-old's continuing "education."
But that doesn't mean the Mets won't process all of that information when making critical decisions regarding their playoff aspirations, such as picking the right time to skip Syndergaard for his innings curfew -- preferably away from Citi, where he's 8-1 with a 1.82 ERA -- and determining how he'll be used in the postseason.
Collins was specifically asked about giving Syndergaard his break on the road, as the Mets did with Matt Harvey on Sunday at Coors Field, and he explained the motivation is no different than with other decisions. Whatever the data suggests is best for the team.
"Take a guy who doesn't hit the ball very good at Citi Field," Collins said. "That's where you want to give him the night off. It's the same thing with Noah. It's nothing against him. It just makes the most sense. You take all these things into consideration."
Which brings us back to the NLDS pitching equation. If the Mets open at home, they obviously would go with Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey for the first two starts. A team official even nodded with that assessment.
But go with Syndergaard on the road? The Mets might be inclined not to. He's made one start at Dodger Stadium, on July 3, and pitched great in a 2-1 victory, allowing two hits, one run and striking out six in six innings. Is that enough of a sample size to expect that performance again? Can the Mets be so sure? And if the Giants overtake the Dodgers, Syndergaard has never pitched at AT&T Park.
The other factor here is Steven Matz, whom the Mets would seriously consider for a playoff rotation spot if he has a strong return from the disabled list. Matz is scheduled for a third rehab start Wednesday for Double-A Binghamton, where he'll be on a 60-pitch limit, then could be called up after that to throw his next turn, around 80 pitches, for the Mets.
The next six weeks also will play a role, depending on how the Mets finish up. If they begin the NLDS in Los Angeles or San Francisco, Syndergaard would have more of an argument to get the ball in a Game 3 at Citi Field. Still, it's awfully tempting to employ Syndergaard as a shutdown reliever, a pitcher who was throwing 99 Tuesday night with an 88-mph changeup and 81-mph curve.
It's not a decision that has to be made now, obviously. But it's on the table.