NEW YORK — The intent? In case there was any doubt, in case the Royals and the 44,781 rollicking, orange-towel waving fans at Citi Field didn’t get the message when he unleashed the 98-mph missile over the head of Alcides Escobar, Noah Syndergaard sat down in front of the cameras after the game and set the record straight. The intent of that pitch to open Game 3 of the World Series?
“To make them uncomfortable,” Thor roared. “And I think I did just that.”
So often, games in October turn on a single pitch. In Game 1 in Kansas City, it was Alex Gordon’s ninth-inning home run against Jeurys Familia. Eric Hosmer’s two-out single in the fifth broke Game 2 open. Syndergaard’s pitch to the backstop not only set the tone for Game 3, it may just be the pitch that is remembered as a turning point in a series that until Friday night was beginning to look like a Kansas City cakewalk. Escobar fell out of the way, tumbled to the ground and sat in the batter’s box to gather himself. Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas fired expletives at Syndergaard from the dugout.
This postseason, Escobar has made crushing first-pitch fastballs a ritual—the shortstop hit one for an inside-the-park home run in Game 1. Before Game 3, Syndergaard’s first words to catcher Travis d’Arnaud when he arrived at the ballpark were that he wanted to go high and tight for the first pitch.
“I feel like it really made a statement to start the game off,” Syndergaard said. Perhaps even more surprising than his pitch was the way he handled questions about the moment after the game. “I mean, I certainly wasn’t trying to hit the guy, that’s for sure,” Syndergaard said. “I just didn’t want him getting too comfortable. If they have a problem with me throwing inside, then they can meet me 60 feet, six inches away. I’ve got no problem with that.”
Yes, the intent was clear, and the statement was delivered: These Mets are not going back off.
Game 3 was a showcase of baseball’s dynamic young pitching and perhaps the hardest throwing showdown in World Series history: While Syndergaard averaged 97.0 mph in 162 innings, Kansas City’s Yordano Ventura had the highest average velocity among qualified starters (96.3). On a blustery, cool evening at Citi Field, Syndergaard rose to the occasion as Ventura, rocked for five runs over 3 2/3 innings, stumbled. It was not an overwhelming performance from Syndergaard—he allowed seven hits and three runs over six innings—and early on, his start was close to unraveling.
After a first inning during which two miscues led to the Royals taking a 1–0 lead, Syndergaard allowed two runs off four singles in the second and was one or two batters away from being lifted, with Jonathon Niese warming up in the bullpen. Syndergaard escaped, and did what Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom could not. Facing this relentless Royals offense that had 21 hits over the first two games, Syndergaard made the right adjustments in the game to silence the K.C. bats. He mixed up his pitches, he spread the ball around in the strike zone, he began using his off-speed pitches—on the night, 47 of his 104 pitches were off-speed—to setup the fastball.
Much has been made about the Mets' pitchers running out of gas, but Syndergaard only got stronger as the night rolled on. He started rolling in the fourth, striking out Gordon on a 99-mph fastball out of The Matrix for the second out. He welcomed Raul Mondesi (the first player ever to make his major-league debut in the World Series) to the big leagues with a 100-mph fastball to strike him out. He established the first pitch strike and opened the strike zone with his secondary pitches.
“You look at the first two innings and they were getting balls that were on the plate, a lot on the plate,” said Mets manager Terry Collins. “He started using his breaking ball, throwing it for strikes, getting ahead of the count with his off-speed stuff. I don’t think they could just sit on one pitch in the third inning on.”
Syndergaard was rolling into the six—he retired 12 straight until allowing a hit to Moustakas. Then things got complicated. Two batters after Moustakas, the bases were loaded for Alex Rios. Collins had two pitchers in the bullpen ready, and Syndergaard was at 102 pitches. Still, the manager had faith.
“I just kind of liked his power stuff against Rios,” he said. “And [I] was going to give him one more guy, and see if he could get him out and he did it. I just thought was a situation where, listen, we needed that third out and I thought he was the guy to do it.”
After Syndergaard’s six innings, Addison Reed, Tyler Clippard and Familia shut the Royals down by not allowing a hit over the final three innings. The Royals, the comeback kids of October, had no answer the rest of the night. After two games of getting knocked around by the K.C. offense, perhaps Mets pitchers have found the right formula.
“You have to mix them up a little bit better,” Collins said of what his pitchers learned after Games 1 and 2, “and that’s what we’ve been trying to do—and tonight it worked out.”
The only thing now certain is this: The Mets are not going to back down. And if the Royals have a problem with that, well, the Mets can meet them 60 feet, six inches away.