LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Forty-five years ago, when the Mets were still training along the water in St. Petersburg, Fla., Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Bud Harrelson, Jerry Grote and others would unwind on afternoon fishing trips. They were sometimes joined by their young manager, Gil Hodges.
The expansion franchise had always been a doormat, finishing ninth in the National League the year before. But something was different that spring, and the 24-year-old Seaver spoke up about it once while sitting in a boat.
Seaver, who sometimes referred to himself as The Supreme Optimist, declared that the Mets were so flush with pitching "we could win our division if we play up to our potential."
In addition to Seaver and Ryan, the 1969 Mets featured 26-year-old Jerry Koosman, 24-year-old Tug McGraw and 22-year-old Gary Gentry. They would go on to blow away the heavily favored Cardinals and outlast the Cubs, becoming the Miracle Mets when they beat the Braves in the NL Championship Series and the Orioles in the World Series.
Flash forward to 2014, spend a gorgeous spring afternoon watching 21-year-old Texan Noah Syndergaard blow through the Braves in his Spring Training debut, and, well, the imagination can run as wild as Yasiel Puig on a gapper.
"He's a big tough kid," Mets manager Terry Collins said of the big right-hander, the 38th player overall in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft. "He's got all the traits, all the talents, of the good ones. He's not joking around, not even when he's out of the game. He's bound and determined to be real, real good. His work ethic is outstanding. He's going to be a really good pitcher."
Syndergaard has positioned himself to pitch alongside 24-year-old Matt Harvey and 23-year-old Zack Wheeler in a rotation that could put the Mets back into the conversation in the NL East. But first the kid with command of a 98-mph fastball and a curveball that Collins calls "the hook from hell" will have to complete his apprenticeship and Harvey, who started the 2013 All-Star Game, will have to be blessed with a successful recovery from Tommy John surgery.
Watching Syndergaard blow away the likes of Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis, you wonder how the Mets could have gotten him (and catcher Travis d'Arnaud) from the Blue Jays in a trade for R.A. Dickey before last season. Dickey maintains a say in how the deal will be evaluated, but it's not too early to say Sandy Alderson got a high return on the aging knuckleballer.
Syndergaard has never been a secret -- well, not since he started throwing so hard his teammates couldn't catch him late in his senior year at Legacy High in Mansfield, Texas, southwest of Fort Worth. He was Team USA's starter in last year's Futures Game at Citi Field, but few expected him to make such a huge impression in his first Spring Training start.
"[I] shocked myself a little bit," Syndergaard said of his fastball-curveball combination to strike out five Mets in two innings during an intrasquad game last week. But if there was anything fluky about that, you couldn't prove it by how the Braves fared against him.
Snydergaard looked like Mark Prior, circa 2003.
"He obviously came in ready to compete," said Braves catcher Ryan Doumit. "You see a lot of guys throw 96, 97 during the season, but they're not throwing 96, 97 right now. It [usually] takes a little while to build up to that."
Snydergaard, a powerful 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, went to 3-2 on Heyward, the leadoff man, and then threw a 98-mph fastball past him. He needed only two more pitches to get through the first inning, getting B.J. Upton to pop to first base and Justin Upton to fly out to right fielder Chris Young.
Snydergaard surrenedered an opposite-field single to Doumit at the end of a nine-pitch battle in the second. But the sequence to remember there came against Gattis. This was power-vs.-power, and Gattis couldn't catch up to Syndergaard's fastball. He swung through three of them in a row, the first at 95 and then two at 96.
"You won't see many people throw three pitches past Evan Gattis," Collins said. "He's on track to be special."
Snydergaard said he was nervous, but only until he threw his first pitch.
"It's always like that," he said, before allowing that striking out Heyward meant "a lot of weight coming off my shoulders there."
Collins stopped worrying about Snydergaard's nerves when he pounded the strike zone with his first two pitches to Heyward.
"Today was a big test," Collins said. "You've got the Atlanta Braves. The leadoff hitter is as big as you are. That kind of shows you aren't in Kansas anymore. You're where the big guys play, and he handled it."
Syndergaard has gone 22-12 with a 2.64 ERA as a pro, but he's worked only 294 innings. He's slated to open the year in Triple-A, because he's worked only 54 innings above Class A ball, and admits he has a lot still to work on -- his changeup mainly, but also also the secondary parts of pitching, like fielding his position and holding on runners.
Major League players know that it's dangerous to draw too many conclusions from what happens in Spring Training, especially when it's so early that starting pitchers are working only two innings. But talent like Syndergaard's is undeniable.
"I didn't know anything about the kid coming into the game," Doumit said. "I sure won't forget his name now."
Asked directly if he thinks he's ready to pitch in the big leagues, Snydergaard seemed more diplomatic than candid.
"I don't think that's up to me," he said. "That's up to the front office."
Time will tell. But it's clear that the Mets are figuring out how they can compete against their division rivals, just like they did under Hodges back in 1969.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.