Noah Syndergaard, a big fan of a big stage, has never pitched at Yankee Stadium.
He was injured when the Mets visited the Bronx last August. In 2016, he missed matching up with the Yankees by a day. The year before that, when Syndergaard was a rookie, he didn’t arrive in the majors until mid-May, three weeks after the Yankees hosted the Mets. That September he got his only taste of the rivalry, allowing five runs in six innings at Citi Field.
And so Syndergaard has waited until now to play at this cathedral of baseball. He’ll get the ball Friday night as the Mets begin the second half against the Yankees in the Bronx half and the back half of this year’s Subway Series. These lights will be about as bright as they get for a team for which the dog days of summer arrived early.
“We’re the two baseball teams in the city and we’re always trying to compete for turf,” Syndergaard said Sunday. “It’ll be nice to go out there and really put a whupping on them.”
Aiding in the attempted whupping should be Yoenis Cespedes, expected to return from the disabled list Friday after missing more than two months, a source said. Cespedes (strained right hip flexor/quad) went 2-for-8 with a homer in two rehab games this week, playing first base in one. Playing in an AL ballpark allows the Mets to slot Cespedes in at DH to ease him in.
For Syndergaard, like the Mets as a whole, the first half was forgettable. He pitched well when he pitched — 2.97 ERA, 1.22 WHIP — but an initially seemingly minor finger injury turned this start into only Syndergaard’s second in eight weeks. The long layoff meant pitch-count restraints upon his return; he tossed 75 against the Nationals last week.
Mickey Callaway said after that game that Syndergaard, who planned to stay in the city over the All-Star break and throw a midweek bullpen session at Citi Field, could go about 100 pitches against the Yankees.
“It’s almost full go,” Callaway said. “We still have to monitor how he feels and if he fatigues, but I thought [the Nationals game] was a really big step. He’s almost a full go.”
With the Mets (39-55) tied with the rebuilding Marlins for last in the NL East, it will be these individual progress markers that highlight the second half. With only 19 starts since the start of last season, can Syndergaard build a strong innings base to carry into 2019? Can Steven Matz, who starts Saturday, maintain his psychological and statistical gains? How closely can Jacob deGrom, who starts the finale Sunday night, repeat his dominant first half to make a true Cy Young run?
Jeurys Familia has been less of a question mark for the Mets of late, but don’t expect Callaway to strain him this weekend. After a brutal June — 8.22 ERA, 2.61 WHIP and a stint on the disabled list — Familia has been excellent this month, throwing seven shutout innings (one hit, one walk). As the Mets look to trade their closer, who is in his free-agent year, Callaway has handled Familia carefully, bringing him in only to start ninth innings and not extending him beyond three outs. In March/April, Familia entered in the eighth inning five times in 15 appearances.
“He’s keeping the ball down, he’s got the sink, the breaking ball is where he needs to be, so he looks really good,” Callaway said.
Why not extend him beyond an inning when circumstances lend themselves to it?
“At that point, with our closer, just to keep him available, he gets his one inning in and he’s done and we get him out,” Callaway said.
That’s life for the Mets now: Protect trade assets while trying to win, which isn’t always easy.
“The first half of the season didn’t go the way we planned or wanted it to,” Syndergaard said. “But this break could be good for us and just ready to hit the second half hard and really set the pace and the tone for the rest of the season and going into the 2019 season.”
Noah Syndergaard (5-1, 2.97 ERA) vs. Domingo German (2-5, 5.49)
Steven Matz (4-7, 3.38) vs. Sonny Gray (6-7, 5.46)
Jacob deGrom (5-4, 1.68) vs. Masahiro Tanaka (7-2, 4.54)