KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The man-child on the mound was simply getting some work in, two simulated innings to keep sharp for the World Series.
It was late afternoon at Kauffman Stadium, dimmed by dark clouds on this overcast day in Kansas City, and even his New York Mets teammates wanted no part of 6-foot-6 Noah Syndergaard.
David Wright bounded into the batting cage, watched a few fastballs whizz by like pellets fired from a BB gun, and stepped right back out.
“How are you supposed to hit that?” he asked buddy Michael Cuddyer.
A chuckling group of Mets marveled at Syndergaard’s sizzling cheese the day before the Series opener — but now they’ve placed the heat squarely on their rookie starter. With the National League champs trailing 2-0 in the best-of-seven set, the 23-year-old thunderbolt aptly nicknamed Thor pitches Friday night against Royals right-hander Yordano Ventura.
And the Mets know perfectly well they can’t afford to lose.
“It’s nice to have Noah going,” second baseman Daniel Murphy said after a 7-1 defeat in Game 2. “We’ll get back to New York and I know the guys will be excited.”
The first World Series game at Citi Field features two of the hardest throwers in baseball.
Syndergaard’s fastball averaged 97.1 mph during the regular season, the highest velocity of any major leaguer who pitched at least 150 innings, according to STATS.
The 24-year-old Ventura ranked third at 96.3 mph.
In the NL playoffs, Syndergaard threw 22 pitches at least 100 mph and topped out at 101, STATS said.
Ventura can touch the century mark, too.
But while Syndergaard certainly brings it, so do Mets aces Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom. And despite their 95-98 mph fastballs, neither one was able to throttle a Royals lineup that’s mastered the lost art of consistently making solid contact.
“This team likes the fastball,” said ALCS MVP Alcides Escobar, the aggressive leadoff man who is batting .364 with 12 runs, eight RBIs and seven extra-base hits this postseason.
Alex Gordon proved that premise with a tying homer in the ninth inning of Game 1 on a 97 mph quick-pitch from New York closer Jeurys Familia.
“We’re always ready for the fastball,” Gordon explained. “Never miss a fastball and adjust to off-speed.”
Scolded by Wright in spring training for eating lunch in the clubhouse during an intrasquad game, Syndergaard acknowledged a rookie mistake and agreed he should have been on the bench looking to learn something. And despite all the attention his heater draws, the rapid development of Syndergaard’s secondary pitches has been the key to his immediate success.
After making his major league debut in May, he picked up a two-seamer that runs to his arm side and fine-tuned his changeup. He gained control of his sharp slider without losing the ability to bend in that slower curveball.
All those improvements helped the right-hander finish 9-7 with a 3.24 ERA and 166 strikeouts in 150 innings — not to mention a long home run to straightaway center field.
Then he went 1-1 with a 2.77 ERA in three NL playoff games, including his first career relief appearance.
Powerful arm, swift progression.
“He’s a very fast learner,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “He has no fear.”
Ventura generates velocity with a whip of his slender frame, perhaps generously listed at 6-feet tall. Syndergaard, by contrast, is a 240-pound hammer who revels in his larger-than-life image.
With long, golden locks flowing out from beneath his baseball cap, 11 letters to that unusual last name arched around his shoulders on the back of a Mets jersey, Syndergaard resembles some sort of Viking pitcher sent from the ancient past.
The ninth century nearly straight to the National League, with an impressive pit stop at Double-A Binghamton.
Syndergaard was given the moniker Thor — the Norse god known for ferocious storms — after tweeting a photo of himself in costume doing squats on Halloween two years ago.
Before his NL Championship Series start against the Cubs, he changed the photo atop his Twitter page to a shot featuring lightning striking Chicago’s famous Willis Tower. For the World Series, bolts descending on the Kansas City skyline.
Syndergaard has “Thor” embroidered in gold on one of his gloves. There’s also a “Tyrion” model from “Games of Thrones” and “Drago” from “Rocky IV” and “Heisenberg” from “Breaking Bad,” among others.
“Characters I like,” he said.
Off the field, however, Syndergaard is not all nasty.
He speaks in soft tones with an air of confidence, and graciously posed for cellphone photos Monday night with Mets and Royals rooters alike — even a disgruntled Cubs fan — following dinner at a popular Kansas City barbecue joint.
Now, back home where he’s pitched his best, Syndergaard will try to win a World Series game his team must have, just as Ventura did as a rookie last year in Game 6 against San Francisco.
“He believes he belongs here,” Collins said. “And that speaks volumes.”
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