NEW YORK -- Considering the Mets’ status as non-contenders, the crowd at Citi Field on Tuesday was understandably sparse. Yet when Noah Syndergaard hopped out of the home dugout to make his first start in 730 days, that smallish group made the type of noise representative of a flock many times its number.
From the loudspeakers, Syndergaard’s old anthem -- the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Carmina Burana” -- blared. His familiar blond hair unraveled from beneath his cap. Certainly, Syndergaard had authored more significant moments in past outings atop that mound, but few seemed as important for the long-term viability of his career.
To that end, Syndergaard fulfilled every one of the Mets’ reasonable expectations. Pitching for the first time in almost exactly two years, he buzzed through Miami’s first three hitters in order during Game 2 of a doubleheader. In his return from Tommy John surgery, Syndergaard threw only one inning and 10 pitches in a 2-1 victory over the Marlins, which James McCann ended with a walk-off fielder’s choice in the ninth. But Syndergaard also hit 96 mph on the radar gun and “just kind of knocked the rust off,” leaving feeling better about his craft than he has in some time.
“When I was walking out of the dugout, hearing the fans, I almost had to shed a little tear,” Syndergaard said. “I’m not really an emotional guy, but it definitely got to me.”
Limiting himself to fastballs and changeups in an effort to reduce strain on his elbow, Syndergaard demonstrated his current lack of need for any other pitches. His first offering of the night was a 96-mph fastball right down the middle -- notable in that he pumped it in several ticks hotter than during a recent series of live batting practice sessions and Minor League rehab starts. Three pitches later, Syndergaard elevated another fastball above the letters, high enough for Miguel Rojas to swing through it.
Next up was rookie standout Jazz Chisholm, who flailed at an 89-mph changeup that faded well out of the strike zone. Then it was Bryan De La Cruz, who grounded out to third to end Syndergaard’s night.
"It was good to see Noah get back out there, honestly,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “You hate to see guys go two years battling that.”
The original plan was for Syndergaard to return in June following his March 2020 Tommy John surgery, but a bout of right elbow soreness prompted the Mets to shut him down during an initial Minor League rehab assignment in May. Syndergaard began throwing again around the start of July, with an eye toward returning in early September. A COVID-19 diagnosis scuttled those plans, forcing him to throw a baseball against a mattress in his apartment to stay sharp.
Only after retracing his steps with another series of live BPs and Minors outings did Syndergaard do enough to escape what he called a “Murphy’s Law” series of unfortunate events.
“Anything that could have happened did happen,” he said.
For Syndergaard, returning was important despite the Mets’ absence from postseason contention. Eligible to become a free agent after this season, Syndergaard needed even a limited showcase to show the Mets and other teams what he was capable of doing -- that he could still, in essence, be “Thor,” the superhero persona that has defined him since his days as a prospect. The Mets, in turn, wanted a live look at Syndergaard before weighing the idea of extending him a qualifying offer worth around $20 million.
Unlike Michael Conforto, another pending free agent who is likely to receive the QO, Syndergaard stands a decent chance of accepting it as a vehicle to rebuild his value following two lost seasons. Still just 29 years old, Syndergaard could return to the Mets next year, prove he can still throw breaking balls without hurting his elbow, enjoy some success, and then seek a long-term deal next winter.
“It would be something I would be extremely grateful for,” Syndergaard said of the qualifying offer. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. It’s definitely something I’m hoping for.”
In the interim, Syndergaard plans to pitch once more this season, at some point this weekend in Atlanta. And while two stray innings won’t do much to change the industry’s opinion of Syndergaard, they can certainly offer both sides a measure of comfort in the idea of an extended tenure in Queens.
“That was another reason why I was pretty emotional tonight,” Syndergaard said when asked about the possibility that he had thrown his final pitches as a Met at Citi Field. “But I’m pretty confident that we’ll reach an agreement, and I’ll be pitching here next year. I’d love nothing more than that. New York has a special place in my heart, and always will.”