John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
On a day when he allowed but one hit over six innings and took a loss against the Nationals only because his sleep-deprived teammates couldn't muster any offense, Noah Syndergaard nevertheless sounded downright exasperated that he can't find the feel for his slider.
As in his once-unhittable slider, the pitch that could take him back to the top of the mountain among major league starting pitchers, right there with Jacob deGrom.
Syndergaard even referenced a specific slider, and a rather famous one, that he threw in Kansas City three years ago at a seemingly unthinkable velocity, convincing everyone who saw it that he had multiple Cy Young Awards in his future.
"I'm trying to get my slider back to where it was in previous years," Syndergaard said. "I work on it a lot but I don't have the feel for it yet. There are times when it feels real nice, but the velocity isn't where I want it. Not like 2016 against the Royals, when I struck out Kendrys Morales at 96 (mph)."
Syndergaard paused momentarily, perhaps reflecting on the exhilaration he felt that day, and then finished his thought.
"I'd like to get it back there."
Officially the slider to Morales was clocked at 95 mph, and it prompted reactions of astonishment all around, as in the case of Royals manager Ned Yost, who was quoted saying "there's no man alive that could hit that pitch."
Syndergaard racked up nine strikeouts in six innings that day, in his first start of the season against a team that had won the World Series the previous year in part because it featured so many good contact hitters.
At the time it felt like the start of something spectacular for Syndergaard, and he did pitch to a 2.60 ERA that year, but since then injuries and inconsistency have raised questions about whether he'll ever be that 1A to deGrom's brilliance.
Before Thursday's home opener, which the Mets lost 4-0, Mickey Callaway made the case that when Syndergaard is on his game, "he's in the top five" of all the pitchers in baseball.
For that to be true, the 6-foot-6 righthander almost certainly will have to find the feel for that unhittable slider again.
On Thursday he was very good even without it. The only hit he allowed cost him a run, when rookie Victor Robles jumped on a first-pitch curve ball and launched it for a home run.
And the only other run he allowed was the result of two walks, a wild pitch, and what amounted to a safety-squeeze bunt by Wilmer Difo.
Still, with six strikeouts on Thursday Syndergaard has 13 in his first two starts, or one fewer than deGrom had Wednesday night against the Marlins. Which matters only because that's the type of dominance for which he's searching.
In that sense his frustration was understandable, yet pitching coach Dave Eiland was practically chuckling when he heard about it.
"He's a perfectionist," Eiland said. "He wants every pitch to be there every outing. That usually doesn't happen. I really admire the perfectionist that he is, but I thought he was very good today.
"His slider's just not there yet. He's not really on top of it with his hand position. He's kind of underneath it, on the side of the ball. So, yeah, the velocity's not going to be there, or the good bite. I'm not too concerned about the velocity as I am the shape of it."
Meaning that Syndergaard throws it plenty hard, whatever the velocity, so if it has a sharp break, it will get some of those swings and misses that Syndergaard is looking for.
Still, the pitcher himself clearly wants to be that monster again with the slider velocity nobody could quite believe a few years ago. At 26 it's not like age is working against him, so maybe it's just a matter of mechanics, as Eiland said.
But Syndergaard is impatient, so when he was asked if he knows why the old velocity is missing, he said, "That's a question for physicists. It's something I'm working on, I've gotta get a feel for it."
The Mets, meanwhile, would be happy getting the Syndergaard they saw on Thursday, but as Callaway and Eiland both indicated, they believe he can pitch at the highest level in the game, right there with deGrom.
Eiland, in particular, knows it, having witnessed the famous strikeout of Morales in April of 2016 as the Royals' pitching coach at the time. He remembers the looks the 95-mph slider got in the Kansas City dugout, and he said he sees the same talent now when he watches Syndergaard.
"I was really, really pleased with the quality of his stuff today and his location with it," Eiland said, "even without his quote, unquote, best slider.
"I still thought he threw some decent ones but I can give you the names of a lot of guys in our clubhouse that haven't quite found all of their stuff yet. Just for Noah it's his slider. But he'll get it."
One thing was clear: Syndergaard won't be happy until he does.