WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — So how did Noah Syndergaard’s first Grapefruit League start go Monday against the defending world champs?
We’ll dispense with the superlatives and go straight to the rundown. Syndergaard threw 11 fastballs at 100 mph or higher, including two at 101.
He humbled American League MVP Jose Altuve with a “perfect” 92-mph changeup that the Astros second baseman could only stare at helplessly for strike three.
“If he throws that changeup to me 100 times,” Altuve said, “he’s going to strike me out 100 times.”
After his clean two innings and 22 pitches, Syndergaard headed for a back field, stripped off his T-shirt and ran sprints for 10 minutes. Maybe to work up a sweat, because he later said he didn’t really “exert a whole lot of effort” mowing down the Astros.
Based on the show he staged, there are two things the Mets’ 6-6 ace isn’t lacking these days: velocity and confidence, which has to be frightening for hitters everywhere.
“His stuff is as good as it comes in baseball,” the Astros’ Brian McCann said. “He’s in that 1 percent of the league.”
Credit McCann for getting his bat on Syndergaard’s final pitch, a 100-mph heater that he managed to slap for a flyout to centerfield. Otherwise, the Astros were feeling their way around the strike zone as if they were searching for a light switch in the dark. And this was no scrub lineup. Besides Altuve and McCann, Houston had George Springer leading off, followed by Josh Reddick, and Carlos Correa hit cleanup.
Right away, it was obvious that Syndergaard was pumped for the challenge. His opening pitch shot past Springer at 100 mph, which caused him to step out of the box, stunned and muttering under his breath. His first four pitches hit 100 on the scoreboard gun, and Syndergaard looked as if he were just playing catch.
“A couple of times I saw the radar gun, but it didn’t even feel like I was really exerting a whole lot of effort,” Syndergaard said. “It felt like I was pretty in control of my delivery for the most part.”
That’s why Mickey Callaway, with his pitching background, didn’t sound too worried about Syndergaard’s pyrotechnics. He knows Syndergaard spent the offseason focusing more on his core strength and flexibility than he did a year ago — ditching the bulking-up program that may have led to last season’s lat tear — so the manager didn’t consider him to be redlining into dangerous territory.
“My heart may have been beating a little fast when I saw 100 and 101,” Callaway said, smiling. “But I was very comfortable with his delivery.”
Not the Astros, who were baffled by Syndergaard’s uncanny ability to switch gears. Altuve was one of the most difficult players to strike out last season (12 percent K-rate), and Syndergaard whiffed him on five pitches, including a 101-mph fastball he swung through. After Altuve took an early changeup for a ball, he thought, “Nah, he won’t throw that again,” then froze when Syndergaard threw an even better one to finish him off.
“Yeah, I was pretty impressed with that pitch right there,” Syndergaard said. “That was something I definitely need to put in my back pocket. For a hitter like that to react the way he did, that was encouraging.”
Houston starter Justin Verlander said: “I definitely saw the radar gun lighting up. I really wanted to hit 100 in my second inning, but I had to stay within myself, right? It’s like the second guy on the tee after someone bombs one down the fairway.”
Syndergaard still has more than a month before Opening Day, and with this new physique, is it possible for him to push the velo even higher?
“That’s a really good question,” he said. “I have no idea. We’ll find out.”
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