CHICAGO — Here’s the scenario the Mets faced Tuesday night at Wrigley Field. Either Noah Syndergaard returned to delivering thunderbolts again from his right arm or the season, as they envisioned it, was essentially over.
Simple as that.
None of the Mets would admit that publicly, of course. It’s too much to put on the shoulders of one pitcher, even if that pitcher happens to be 6-7 with a 100-mph fastball. But you can bet there was anxiety rippling through the cramped visitors clubhouse Tuesday afternoon, and leaking from under the door of the manager’s office.
The Mets already have been forced to find replacements for David Wright and Matt Harvey for the remainder of this season. But there is no substitute for Syndergaard, no trade within the realm of possibility that could make good on his arm checking out for the summer.
So against that backdrop, what Syndergaard did Tuesday by battling the dangerous Cubs into the sixth inning was a huge relief for the Mets, a chance for them to still entertain thoughts of playing in October. Even defending their National League title.
Syndergaard, coming off an 11-day virtual shutdown, struck out eight and limited the Cubs to one unearned run over 5 2⁄3 sweaty, stressful innings. Maybe this didn’t look like a masterpiece in the box score, but to the Mets, who rallied in the ninth for the 2-1 victory, Syndergaard’s effort painted a Mona Lisa in their eyes.
“The fatigued arm, obviously is gone,” Terry Collins said. “But I’ll tell you what he had to do — he had to work hard. He had to work very very hard. The command wasn’t like we normally see it. But he had to work. And I like it. I like to see a guy like that work that hard to get us to where he got us.
“I thought it was a really good outing for him. Not the best outing, but a good outing for him.”
After what the Mets witnessed at Citi Field back on July 8, when Syndergaard’s arm suddenly blew a fuse, going dead without warning, they’ll take good. They can live with good. And we’re talking good for Syndergaard — not for some fringe starter. His fastball ranged from 96-100 mph, his slider hovered around 89-91, the changeup was a reliable 90 and the curve a devilish 82.
With those familiar weapons, Syndergaard got to 105 pitches, even if he was a little rusty from the extended layoff. Most importantly, the power was turned back on, the electricity in that arm still crackled for another night.
“My arm felt really loose and fluid,” Syndergaard said, “even later in the game.”
He persuaded Collins, who didn’t bother to get anyone up in the bullpen until Syndergaard reached 96 pitches, which seems a tad high for someone coming off a rather significant arm scare. We already know Syndergaard can’t be trusted when it comes to describing how he actually feels. That nerve-rattling night at Citi, Syndergaard tried to wave off Collins and the team’s trainer despite his obvious malfunction.
But Tuesday night’s game against the Cubs was as critical as it gets for late July and Collins, who said later that 105 was the ceiling, had faith that Syndergaard could push the throttle to that number.
“We wanted to keep him around 100 pitches just to make sure everything was OK,” Collins said. “He felt fine the whole game. Just his stuff wasn’t really sharp.”
The Mets repeatedly have told us Syndergaard is fine, and claim his two recent MRIs came back clean, aside from the supposedly harmless bone spur lodged inside. But it took until Tuesday night for us to believe them.
If this wasn’t a healthy, fully-functional Syndergaard, then it was a decent impostor. And let’s just say the Mets are less convinced Steven Matz — dealing with a larger, more painful bone spur — is going to make it to the finish line.
For Tuesday night, at least, the Mets could exhale. As long as Syndergaard does what he did, their season, and title dreams, remain alive. Until the next crisis.