WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The 14th and final pitch of the bottom of the third inning Thursday at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches emerged from the vicinity of a flowing mane of blonde hair 60 feet 6 inches from where Anthony Rendon stood with a bat in his hands. It started somewhere up around Rendon’s eyes and finished somewhere around his knees — a curveball that, at that very moment, tilted the elemental baseball matchup of pitcher vs. hitter past the point of fairness.
The inning-ending knee-buckler from New York Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard was just one measly pitch — and one that doesn’t even count, for that matter — of the thousands he will throw this year. But that one pitch also revealed plenty about where things stand some three weeks before Opening Day for Syndergaard, the Mets and the rival Washington Nationals.
In that third inning of the Nationals’ 8-5 victory, Syndergaard struck out Trea Turner, Bryce Harper and Rendon — the three best hitters in Washington’s lineup Thursday, and many other days — with an assortment of pitches ranging from a 97-mph fastball with which he opened the Turner at-bat to the 83-mph curve he used to ring up Rendon. They were Syndergaard’s fourth, fifth and sixth consecutive strikeouts; he would add a seventh straight an inning later — Matt Adams, on a 92-mph slider — before being pulled with 63 pitches, his spring ERA dropping to 1.08.
“I wouldn’t say I’m in midseason form yet,” Syndergaard said. “But it’s nice . . . to finish up strong.”
Catcher Kevin Plawecki didn’t even realize, until reporters informed him, that Syndergaard had struck out the final seven batters he faced. “I had no idea,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t think he had his best stuff today. But he made the most of what he had.”
Nobody was looking to make too much of a 3⅓ -inning start in the second week of March, but on a day when Syndergaard — the hardest-throwing starting pitcher in baseball — touched 101 mph with his fastball (according to the stadium radar gun), it was the slow curve to Rendon that had the big right-hander sidling up to his manager on the Mets’ bench and gushing with excitement.
“Man,” Syndergaard told Mickey Callaway, “that feels like a really good pitch for me.”
If the Mets are going to begin to make up the yawning, 27-game gap that emerged between themselves and the Nationals in 2017, a cakewalk to the National League East title for the 97-win Nationals — it must start, almost by necessity, with Syndergaard.
It was some 10½ months ago that Syndergaard walked off the mound at Nationals Park with a torn lat muscle, a trauma from which the Mets — who also saw slugger Yoenis Cespedes leave with a hamstring injury three days earlier — never really recovered. Syndergaard pitched three more innings the rest of the season.
Faced with a career crossroads of sorts at age 25, Syndergaard spent the offseason working on his flexibility and core strength, rather than simply lifting weights in a vain effort to build mass and velocity, as he had in the past.
“I was just very gung-ho in lifting weights, and I just kind of neglected the being-athletic side,” Syndergaard told reporters when he reported to Florida last month, speaking of 2017. “I was wound tight and couldn’t move that well. So that’s something I worked on this year — a lot of mobility work to get my hips and my core to work in synergy. . . . It’s unfortunate what happened last year. You learn from it and get better.”
If Syndergaard attacked every start last year — at least until his late-April injury — like the Nordic god “Thor” who had become his alter ego, he has attacked his three starts this spring more like a pitcher, with the same physical dominance as ever, but with hints of a cerebral approach to the craft that might just mark a new, maturing phase in his career.
When Syndergaard threw 11 pitches at 100 mph or faster in his spring debut, he bristled at the suggestion he was back to the overthrowing, velocity-chasing Thor of 2017. “Who’s freaking out — people with no baseball experience?” he told reporters. “. . . I wasn’t overthrowing. I was throwing free and easy.”
When Syndergaard is healthy, he is the hardest-throwing starting pitcher in the game. His average fastball velocity in 2016, his last full, healthy season, was 98.0 mph, nearly two ticks faster than the next-hardest, Kansas City’s Yordano Ventura. Last year, his average slider velocity of 92.5 mph was faster than the league-average fastball velocity of 92.3.
But in Syndergaard’s previous two starts, including Thursday’s against the Nationals, his velocity has been a couple of ticks down — he hit triple digits just three times Thursday — and he has leaned more heavily on a slider that has long been considered one of the best in the game and the curveball that can now be considered an emerging weapon for him.
In 2016, his last full, healthy season, Syndergaard threw the curve just 8.5 percent of his pitches, compared with 59.1 percent fastballs and a 21.2 percent sliders. But Callaway, the new Mets manager and a former big league pitching coach, has pushed him to throw more curves as a way of keeping hitters from anticipating his faster pitches.
“If he can mix that slower pitch in at times and get hitters off all the hard stuff,” Callaway said, “there’s no telling what he can do.”
Callaway has even managed to get Syndergaard to pay attention to the tedious, unsexy task of holding runners on base — a weak spot for Syndergaard in the past. On Thursday, the Mets’ coaching staff clocked his delivery time to home plate from the stretch position at around 1.3 seconds, down from the 1.6s and 1.7s he would typically post.
“We want to make him aware of how important that is,” Callaway said. “I think in the past he hasn’t really valued it, but we’re going to help him value it a little more. He can definitely do it. He just has to pay attention to it and want to do it.”
With Syndergaard and Cespedes both healthy, and with Jacob deGrom, their 2017 ace, on the mend from back soreness and set to make his 2018 spring debut on Sunday, suddenly the Mets — a pennant winner in 2015 and a wild card in 2016 — can see the pieces falling into place for a return to competitiveness and prominence following the 2017 debacle.
If Thor can rein in his thunderbolt, and even show some interest in the fine art of holding runners on base, anything is possible.