I had made no secret about my desire to see Mets phenom Noah Syndergaard take on the Cubs Tuesday night and, for the most part, the kid they call Thor lived up to the hype. He touched 99 on the gun in the 1st and was still in the upper 90’s when he was pulled from the game in the 6th.
Watching Syndergaard work was almost like travelling back a quarter century or so to my Little League days, when we’d have to face a kid who was just bigger and stronger than everyone else. Some of those guys were preceded by their reputations, stories of their prowess that had you psyched out before you even stepped in the box.
On such guy was Denny Ford, a young man who — as legend had it — was missing part of one finger, thus allowing him to impart wicked movement along with his frightening fastball. He was the Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown of Starke County. I never stood a chance against him. Of course, my favorite Denny story would come several years after our Little League days and involved a fight at a basketball open gym, but we’ll save that for another day.
Through 5 innings, Syndergaard was very much that same intimidating presence, as mythical as his Asgardian namesake. He even struck out the first hitter he ever faced, Dexter Fowler. After pumping in fastballs that clocked 97, 98, and 97, the big righty dropped an 82 mph curve in the dirt that the home plate ump ruled Fowler had offered at. Questionable call or not, the pitch was nasty. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo made outs on 3 pitches combined, giving the rookie a 7-pitch frame.
Oh, but Noah Syndergaard wasn’t the only pitcher spinning a gem out there on the mound at Wrigley. That’s because while he was bringing the raw, visceral power of a blockbuster action flick, Jake Arrieta was crafting a quiet masterpiece. Describing it that way belies the absolute filth the bearded baby bear was bringing though. At times, I was amazed CSN Chicago was able to air the performance unedited and I won’t be surprised in the least if the FCC levies fines for the nature of their programming.
Over the course of 8 innings, Arrieta made the baseball do things that flew in the face of the laws of physics, not to mention common decency. Even Patches O’Houlihan would have been amazed by the way Jake’s pitches dodged, dipped, ducked, dived, and dodged. Needless to say, the performance was far more worthwhile than the poopy-flavored lollipops he’d given out in his last couple of starts. There are times when, as a professional courtesy, a pitcher will sort of take it easy on his counterpart, secure in the knowledge that the guy won’t be able to catch up to a high fastball. But not Arrieta.
Syndergaard is no light-hitting hurler though, and at 6’6″ and 250 lbs, the dude can swing lumber like Paul Bunyan. Even so, that’s no excuse for the way Arrieta treated the kid. Take, for instance, the rookie’s 6th-inning AB, when he took a 95 mph heater for a ball and a 94 mph sinker for a strike. He then fouled off an 85 mph curve, took a 78 mph curve for ball two, then whiffed unthreateningly at a sinker that registered 95 on the gun.
The combination of movement and velo changes kept Mets hitters off-balance all game long. While the Cubs weren’t able to break through, their approach got better after that quick 1st inning. They made Syndergaard work, drawing 4 free passes (one intentional) over the course of his 5 1/3 innings, and seemed to be feeling him out in search of a weak spot. Interestingly enough, they found just that in the 6th, the frame that has so often been their undoing this season.
Jorge Soler ripped a line drive back up the middle and was doubled home by Starlin Castro, who seems to have rediscovered his line drive stroke. And then Chris Coghlan barreled up 96 mph 4-seamer that didn’t really do much other than travel to the plate on a line. It left the field of play in the same manner and I hope this gets Cogs off the schneid. That earned the rook a hook and allowed the Cubs to feast on the poor control of Alex Torres. They only score once on the reliever, but it just felt as though they had the game well in hand by the time the inning ended.
It’s funny what a difference a couple games can make. During the series in Milwaukee and St. Louis, it looked at times as though the Cubs were playing baseball on the beach, or perhaps even underwater. Maybe I’m just projecting my own lethargy onto them, but there just wasn’t an edge or spark to the way they were playing. But that’s changed quickly in these last couple of games. Bryant and Rizzo went back-to-back Monday night and the latter reached base 4 more times Tuesday (double, 3 BB). But on a night when one rookie made his debut, it was his slightly more tenured counterpart who continued to sparkle.
You know how a lot of folks have been saying that Bryant-bombs were going to come in bunches once they started? Well…
The young third baseman even hit his 1st career triple, a shot off the wall in right that showed just how strong he really is. Some have said that his swing looks slow, that it almost looks as though he’s not going all out. That’s not so much a criticism as it is an optical illusion. Bryant’s clearly got power to spare, and he’s having no problems catching up to MLB-level heat. The triple and home run he hit were on pitches that registered 96 and 95, respectively. Cubs opponents were afraid of this, it’s why they’ve been pitching him like an All-Star. And now that he’s driving the ball like this, the kid’s going to look like Pennywise to opposing pitchers.
This is still a team that’s going to spend time in the doldrums and there are still questions lingering, but on a night like tonight it’s easy to push those queries to the corner for a little while and celebrate just how good the Cubs can be.