The Mercury News
HEAT IS ON
Mets ace brings the hammer, but Giants counterpart knows thing or two about postseason
NEW YORK — With his flowing blond hair, his Scandinavian heritage and his imposing 6-foot-6 physique, Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard might look perfectly normal downing flagons of mead in the dugout instead of sipping the blue stuff out of the cooler.
They call him Thor, and there is no doubt he brings a hammer to the mound. Syndergaard’s 98.3 mph fastball was the hardest on average of any major league starter this season. He threw 1,047 pitches at 98 mph or firmer. That represented 10.3 percent of all pitches thrown
that hard in the big leagues. The only team that threw that many, aside from the Mets, of course, was the Yankees.
Among those 1,047 heaters, Syndergaard gave up just 63 hits. Among those 63 hits, just two of them were home runs. The Marlins’ Marcell Ozuna hit one of them. The Giants’ Hunter Pence hit the other.
The Giants know their starting pitcher in Wednesday’s N.L. wild-card showdown, Madison Bumgarner, will be able to handle the unique heat of ascending the mound in a knockout game.
For all the Giants’ offensive consistency in the second half, they know they have the personnel to handle Syndergaard’s unique heat, too.
Handling the heater
Pence is capable of turning around a pitch that approaches 100 mph. So is Buster Posey, and for proof, check out his 5-for-10 lifetime numbers against Cubs reliever Aroldis Chapman. Are those two hitters the Giants’ best against the fastball?
“I don’t want to pick out somebody, to be honest, because I think they’re all pretty good fastball hitters,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “Most hitters are good fastball hitters. But when you’re facing a guy like we’re facing tomorrow, it’s a different fastball. I mean, these guys who throw 99, 100 mph, you’ve got to be ready for it.”
The ability to handle a fastball firmer than a prison bedroll, and even to barrel it up when it’s out of the zone, has been a hallmark of the Giants’ three World Series runs beginning in 2010. Remember that look of disbelief on Justin Verlander’s face when Pablo Sandoval took him deep twice in Game 1 of the 2012 Fall Classic?
The Giants no longer can rely on the Kung Fu Panda’s October magic as they strive to win their ninth consecutive playoff elimination game dating to 2012. But they still have Pence, who finds a way to get his hits even when they shatter his bat.
Even when he faces a pitcher who could knock down the doors of Valhalla with his heater.
It seems ridiculous to suggest Syndergaard did not have his best stuff in a May 1 loss to the Giants at Citi Field, when he lost to Bumgarner while giving up four runs in 52⁄3 innings. He threw “only” seven out of 98 pitches at 98 mph or harder, including the two-run shot that Pence drove over the right field fence.
When Syndergaard faced the Giants at AT&T Park on Aug. 21, he threw 44 of 98 pitches at 98 mph or harder. The Giants managed two hits in eight innings of a 2-0 loss.
He’s bound to have that little extra zip in a frenzied environment at Citi Field on Wednesday. It won’t change the Giants’ ambitions.
“Fastballs, it’s all timing,” Pence said. “He has other pitches as well. He’s got an arsenal of weapons. You can’t just go in and be like, oh, this guy throws hard so I’m going to have to hit a fastball. Sometimes they don’t throw it for a strike.
“So you’ve got to get in there with a game plan and a preparation, and understand that it’s timing. It’s having an approach and trusting that approach, and trusting your teammates.”
Setting the table for Posey and Pence, and putting Syndergaard in the stretch, will be just as important.
No pitcher allowed more stolen bases than Syndergaard this season, and it wasn’t particularly close. Opponents were successful in 48 of 57 attempts; the Brewers’ Jimmy Nelson allowed the second most steals (30).
It’s an area Syndergaard said he made strides to improve, and it’s true, the Giants went 0 for 2 in stolen-base attempts (Trevor Brown, Eduardo Núñez) during his Aug. 21 start.
“As of now, I feel pretty confident,” Syndergaard said. “I feel I’ve done a pretty good job the last two or three months, improving with holding runners on. I’ve just got to go out there, stay nice and loose, and not get too tense out there when runners get on.”
Setting the tone
Still, opposing base stealers’ 84 percent success rate against Syndergaard was the second highest against an N.L. pitcher with a minimum of 25 attempts. So it’ll be up to leadoff hitter Denard Span, who didn’t fare well against the fastball this season (.249), to get Syndergaard in the stretch.
“Yeah, you’ve got to set the tone and get guys on base and put pressure on the pitcher,” said Span, who is coming off a three-hit game in Sunday’s regular-season finale. “I think when you do that, you allow for things to happen. Buster and Hunter are among the best in the game at coming through.”
Expect Syndergaard to challenge Span, whose fastball percentage (63.1) ranked sixth in the N.L. Angel Pagan (66.7 percent) saw a heavier diet of fastballs than any player in the league.
“It’s gonna be a heavyweight fight, man,” Span said. “We’ll have to pack our lunch and they’ll have to pack their lunch. Because it’s two of the best pitchers in the game are going to be squaring off that night for a chance to move on.”
Said Posey: “When we’re clicking offensively, we’re not trying to do too much. I’m sure it’s similar for a lot of teams. You’re keeping the line moving. That’s particularly important in the playoffs when you’re facing good pitching. You’ve just go tot go up and try to be productive any way you can.”
The Giants found a way to beat the Phillies’ Roy Halladay in the 2010 NLCS when he was coming off a no-hitter. If that assignment didn’t intimidate them, nothing will.
Well, except … did we mention that Syndergaard’s slider averaged 91 mph this season — harder than the average four-seam fastball of 86 major league pitchers?
“When Noah Syndergaard takes the mound, he thinks he’s going to win,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “He hates to think there is somebody better than him. That’s why I think this is going to be a great challenge for him. He’s going to grow because of this game.”
The Giants would prefer that he learns from defeat. Although Syndergaard pitched in the World Series last year, he hasn’t experienced a wildcard environment that Pence described as “a huge, emotional, intense, all-in, all-or-nothing game.”
Thor has his hammer. But the Giants already know what Bumgarner can do with an ax.