After a game at Citi Field last season, not long after his arrival in the big leagues, Noah Syndergaard settled into the passenger’s seat for the short ride home.
He had yet to turn himself into a fan favorite, first through the frat boy humor of his Twitter feed, and then through his psyche-rattling brushback pitch in the World Series.
So Syndergaard was caught off guard when his car pulled up to the Triboro, where he was recognized by the toll taker. It might be the last time he was surprised by the spotlight.
“I definitely feed off that positive energy,” Syndergaard said Tuesday, after the Mets tapped him to save their season in Wednesday night’s win-or-go-home NL wild-card game against the Giants. “There are some times where it can be a little too much. But just kind of take a step, slide off the mound, take a deep breath, and get back to pitching.”
Syndergaard, who has thrived under pressure, wouldn’t have it any other way. Back in suburban Mansfield, Texas, he had once been the bespectacled pudgy kid with a fastball that did not materialize until his senior year of high school.
Now the 6-6, 240-pounder rises like part of the New York skyline. He has grown into the hardest thrower in baseball and the sole survivor from a bright stable of young arms that has been dimmed by injuries.
“Really, there’s no reason to be nervous when you’re prepared,” Syndergaard said, convinced that he won’t blink under the pressure of the October stage. “That’s my motto.”
Nerves would be forgiven. Syndergaard, 24, is pitted against Madison Bumgarner, the best big-game pitcher of his era. The ace lefty is part of the reason that the Giants, owners of World Series titles in 2010, 2012, and 2014, have won eight consecutive elimination games.
“That’s playoff baseball, it’s the best versus the best,” Giants outfielder Hunter Pence said. “It’s two Goliaths going at it, two big guys, and that makes for some good drama, some good excitement.”
Yet Syndergaard channeled the “Thor” persona, that along with the flowing blond locks, has defined his mound presence. He called his assignment against the Giants “a dream come true.” The Mets battled through injuries and rallied themselves with a stirring second half. In a season of great expectations following last year’s pennant run, they have given themselves a chance at redemption.
To keep it going, the Mets must win. Nevertheless, Syndergaard offered no hints of being intimidated by the stakes.
“Noah Syndergaard believes in Noah Syndergaard, make no mistake about it,” manager Terry Collins said. “And you can call it whatever name you want. Great players have egos.”
That brashness once irked the Mets. Back in 2015, during a spring training scrimmage, Syndergaard retreated to the clubhouse for a quick lunch. He was confronted by a pair of veterans, who tossed his plate into the trash, then lectured him for missing a chance to watch and learn.
Since then, Collins noticed how Syndergaard remained glued to the top step during the starts of teammates such as Jacob deGrom, all to “dissect why he got outs.”
That self-study is apparent in Syndergaard’s arsenal, which features a nasty two-seamer, a wipeout slider that he added this season, and a fastball that regularly hits the triple-digits.
“He’s one of the best young pitchers in the game,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “You look at his stuff, he’s just grown as a pitcher, his command, everything.”
In the postseason last year, Syndergaard won two of his three starts. That included Game 3 against the Royals in the World Series, when he announced that he would not be scared. He sent the message with a fastball over the head of Alcides Escobar. Earlier in the playoffs, Syndergaard threw one electrifying inning of relief in the Mets’ Game 5 triumph in the NLDS.
This season, Syndergaard earned his first All-Star honors, finishing 14-9 with a 2.60 ERA. He racked up 218 strikeouts in 182 2⁄3 innings. His biggest weakness was controlling the running game. He allowed a whopping 48 steals in 57 attempts.
But pairing Syndergard with veteran catcher Rene Rivera helped stem the tide as the season went along. The righthander also benefitted from his own efforts to cut down on the length of his delivery, another example of his willingness to adapt.
Mets captain David Wright had been one of the veterans to scold Syndergaard in spring training. But Tuesday, Wright praised the righthander’s maturity and offered his highest compliment.
“I’ll put him up against anybody in baseball,” Wright said. “And that includes Madison Bumgarner.”
Possible lineups for tonight’s wild-card game:
Jose Reyes 3B
Asdrubal Cabrera SS
Yoenis Cespedes LF
Curtis Granderson CF
Jay Bruce RF
T.J. Rivera 2B
James Loney 1B
Rene Rivera C
Noah Syndergaard P
Denard Span CF
Brandon Belt 1B
Buster Posey C
Hunter Pence RF
Brandon Crawford SS
Angel Pagan LF
Joe Panik 2B
Conor Gillaspie 3B
Madison Bumgarner P
— MARC CARIG