The race for the two National League wild-card spots has been whittled to three teams, and with 12 games left, the time has come for the brandishing of weapons.
In San Francisco, the Giants have ensured that October virtuoso Madison Bumgarner is lined up to start the wild-card game. In St. Louis, the Cardinals appear ready to bestow the honor upon a young talent, Carlos Martinez.
In New York, barring a health scare or an asteroid strike, the Mets will entrust their fate to the hardest thrower in baseball, the hulking, muscular, blond-locked force named Noah Syndergaard.
But first, there is the matter of making things official. And if Monday night’s 7-3 loss to the Braves signified anything, it is that work remains to be done.
“It stings a little bit,” Syndergaard said after allowing five runs and eight hits in 3 2⁄3 innings. “Because these last few weeks, every win is critical. There’s disappointment that I couldn’t go out there and get my job done.”
The Mets currently own the first wild card and are one game ahead of the Giants and Cardinals, who are tied for the second wild card.
By one projection system, the Mets hold an 88.9-percent chance of reaching the postseason. Those numbers can shift wildly, though, and Syndergaard showed that even he’s capable of throwing a clunker.
He entered with a 2.43 ERA, the third best in the National League, one of the reasons Terry Collins has lined him up to throw the wild-card game on Oct. 5. Additionally, he has emerged as the sole survivor of a vaunted rotation that has been battered by injuries. Said Collins: “If there’s a big game to be pitched, he’s the guy you’re going to turn to.”
The Mets scored only two runs in six innings against Aaron Blair, who hadn’t pitched since Aug. 28, when his record fell to 0-6 and his ERA rose to 8.23.
T.J. Rivera continued to make his case to remain stationed at second base. The once-undrafted rookie hit a two-run home run, his second homer in as many days.
Freddie Freeman extended his customary punishment of the Mets, going 4-for-5 with a homer and three RBIs. He finished a triple short of the cycle.
But the night hinged on Syndergaard, who stumbled after a 10-strikeout outing against the Nationals left him “a little stiffer between starts this time,” Collins said.
Still, he threw thunderbolts in the first, when he required only 10 pitches. He twice used 100-mph fastballs to set up strikeouts on spring-loaded sliders, the first buzzing toward the plate at 93 mph and the next at 95.
When Freeman grounded out to end the inning, Syndergaard appeared destined for dominance. What he got instead was a humbling. Said Collins, “It’s completely out of character.”
Until he was given the hook with two outs in the fourth, Syndergaard fought a losing battle with his command. He fell behind batters. He missed spots. He got bashed even as the radar gun flashed gaudy numbers.
Syndergaard allowed bases-loaded singles to Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte, part of a 35-pitch slog through the second. In the third, Freeman hammered a solo homer, only the 11th-round tripper allowed by Syndergaard all season. He had started the day allowing one homer per 18 innings, the lowest rate of any qualifying starter in baseball.
The end arrived in the fourth. With two outs, Freeman dumped a two-run double to leftfield and Matt Kemp legged out an infield hit, prompting Collins to make his slow walk out of the dugout.
Syndergaard went 4-1 with a 1.36 ERA in his previous six starts, but the run ended against the Braves, leaving the Mets to hope that what they saw was merely a late-season blip.
“Baseball is a funny game,” Syndergaard said. “Once you think you have it figured out, it really will knock you down. I felt about the best I ever did the start against the Nationals, and today I couldn’t even get out of the fourth inning.”