PHILADELPHIA -- The last time Noah Syndergaard started a World Series game, he climbed atop the Citi Field mound in New York and, with his first pitch, knocked Kansas City's Alcides Escobar to the dirt. All throughout that 2015 postseason, Escobar had tormented opponents, including the Mets, with his propensity to impact the first pitch of the game. Syndergaard fashioned himself as the sheriff to stop it.
Afterward, in an equally brash postgame press conference, Syndergaard told reporters that if Escobar had a problem with his tactics, he could “meet me 60 feet, six inches away.”
That was Syndergaard then -- a force unto himself, equal parts dynamic and raw, in many ways unrecognizable from the pitcher who will start Game 3 of the World Series for the Phillies on Monday at Citizens Bank Park. In large part because of manager Rob Thomson’s desire to give Ranger Suárez an extra day of rest following his Game 1 relief outing, Syndergaard will start for the first time since a three-inning effort in Game 4 of the National League Division Series -- and in the World Series for the first time since 2015.
“Seven years seems like a long time ago,” Syndergaard said. “I was just a very naive rookie at the time. I’ve had a lot of baseball under my belt since then to mature and to accumulate some experience. … I’m just really excited, on a personal level, to be able to toe the slab.”
Questions abound as to how deep Syndergaard can go against the Astros and how effective he can be. But if he can channel any echo of his last World Series appearance in 2015, Syndergaard figures to give the Phillies the sort of contribution they expect.
“I’m sure it’s still in there somewhere,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said.
Even so, it is difficult to discuss Syndergaard these days without acknowledging the limits that exist. It’s been almost exactly a month since Syndergaard has thrown more than three innings or 35 pitches in a game. As such, it’s unlikely he will see much of the middle innings, as a rested Phillies bullpen cycles through anyone not named Suárez. Thomson acknowledged that “three, four innings is probably where we’re at” with Syndergaard.
In effect, this will be a bullpen game, with the added benefit of keeping both Syndergaard and Suárez available for potential Game 7 appearances.
That should make it mostly unrecognizable from Syndergaard’s last World Series start, in which the Mets asked him to retire as many Royals as possible. Following his knockdown of Escobar, Syndergaard forged forward for six innings, giving the Mets their only Fall Classic win in the last 22 years. The next season was Syndergaard’s best as a big leaguer before the first of multiple major injuries dragged down his star. Three years later, during baseball’s pandemic shutdown, he underwent Tommy John surgery.
Syndergaard did not make it back until the waning days of the 2021 season, at which point he was pitching for his next contract. As a free agent, he spurned the Mets’ $18.4 million qualifying offer, instead signing with the Angels on a $21 million prove-it deal. And prove it he did, though not in his typical way. Beneath the 3.83 ERA that Syndergaard produced over 15 starts in Anaheim were obvious signs of reinvention.
Once the game’s hardest-throwing pitcher, Syndergaard is now merely average in that department. His fastball velocity is down almost 4 mph from where it was before surgery. His slider, once one of the league’s most dynamic weapons, is 7 1/2 mph slower than its peak. He strikes out batters at a fraction of the rate he once did. And yet Syndergaard has managed, for the most part, to generate outs.
“He’s pitching more now than he was before when he was just a power pitcher when he was with the Mets, when he was overpowering people,” Baker said.
Even if he’s not quite the same pitcher, Syndergaard is almost certainly the same competitor as the one who knocked down Escobar in 2015. He spoke Sunday about his excitement to open the Phillies’ first World Series home game since ‘09. He lauded Philadelphia’s fans. Thomson referred to Syndergaard as “a pretty steady guy” who “has been through it before.” Syndergaard himself said he will be ready, unfazed, to “be who I can be.”
“It is the World Series, but we have to just play it like it’s a normal game,” Syndergaard said. “I’m not trying to get outside my realm.”