Noah Syndergaard, the reliever?
At different junctures in time over the last year, the Mets have flirted with the idea of transitioning Noah Syndergaard into a late inning reliever.
The belief was Syndergaard’s upper-90s fastball and upper-80s breaking pitches would play well in an eighth inning role, as his swing-and-miss stuff could provide some badly needed shutdown innings late in games thanks to so much inconsistency in that part of the bullpen.
The Mets ultimately resisted such a move while watching Syndergaard flourish and blossom into an intimidating young force at the top of their rotation during the latter part of the season.
But the possibility surfaced before the postseason began that Syndergaard could indeed wind up as a late inning reliever under the right conditions. But while manager Terry Collins warmed up to the idea of having Syndergaard pitch a late inning in game five on Wednesday, he was more hesitant on Thursday to expose Syndergaard in such a role during the playoffs.
“He’s never pitched out of the bullpen,” Collins explained early Thursday. “Is it fair to him and fair to our club? Is it the most successful thing to do to put him in the eighth inning when he’s never had to experience it outside of the fact that he throws hard? And what’s it going to do if he fails for his psychological moving forward?”
But Collins went to the well anyway when Syndergaard entered the game assigned the task of holding a 3-2 lead Jacob deGrom somehow managed to finagle despite having next to nothin early in the game.
“The blood was flowing a little bit,” the right-hander explained. “I was a little juiced up, but just to break it down, just focused on one pitch at a time and that’s as simple as it gets. I think that’s the key to success in that situation.”
And what Syndergaard showed – which was utter dominance in a harmless 1-2-3 seventh inning – is precisely what the Mets have fantasized about when supporters of the idea have considered such a transition into a power-armed reliever.
He threw 17 pitches while issuing a walk with two strikeouts in a scoreless inning of relief, with the Dodger hitters swinging and missing at 29.4 percent of his pitches in that frame. He averaged over 99 mph with the 13 four-seam and tw-seam fastballs he threw, topping out at over 100 mph in some instances.
“Dan said to me, ‘look, the middle of their lineup, we need to have somebody with power to get through that part,'” Collins explained after the win. “And I said, ‘do you think the kid can handle it?’ And he said, ‘by all means.’ So he talked me into it. We brought him in the 7th inning, and he was about as good as you can possibly ask for in that spot.”
He was better. He did issue a two-out walk to Adrian Gonzalez, but what turned out to be a rare occurrence during this series, struck out former Met Justin Turner for the final out of his first ever big league appearance.
Syndergaard was asked to loosen up on four different occasions thanks to a shaky outing from deGrom. He began warming as early as the second inning, and then three more times before coming in for the seventh inning.
“I talked to a lot of the guys in the bullpen, some of the veteran guys to learn how to handle that,” Syndergaard said. “They gave me some very valuable advice. But it was a very different experience for me, just the confidence that Terry has in me to go out there and pitch that inning, especially with the lead, instills a lot of confidence in myself.”
He was so good, it seemed sensible for Collins to leave Syndergaard out there for the eighth inning, something which Syndergaard was thinking about after his one inning of work.
Instead, Collins turned to Jeurys Familia for a six-out save.
“There were definitely thoughts,” Syndergaard said. “But I had the utmost confidence in the managerial decision to bring in Familia. He’s the best closer in the game, and he did exactly what we thought he was going to do, and that is shut the door.”
There’s another reason why Collins might have pulled Syndergaard after one inning – he is the logical candidate to start game two of the National League Championship Series against the Cubs on Sunday.
So rest assured, Syndergaard is still an intimidating force in the Mets rotation, and is most certainly viewed as a starter both now and in the long-term.
But the team now knows for sure what the kid can do in short relief, especially in another do-or-die scenario later in the playoffs.