Syndergaard’s Guards debut ‘liberating’ despite sudden exit

5:25 AM UTC

HOUSTON — The expectations for Noah Syndergaard‘s Cleveland debut were low. They had to be. The righty hadn’t started a Major League game since June 7 after battling a blister issue, mechanical hiccups and mental roadblocks. He needed a reset and even he wasn’t sure what the outcome would be when he got back on the mound against the Astros on Monday.

So, when the Guardians were able to look up in the fifth inning and see zeros on the board and only two hits allowed, it was more than they could’ve asked for, especially on a day that they traded their hottest starter, Aaron Civale. That was, until a line drive hit Syndergaard in the lower right leg, prompting his exit from the game. After the ball was turned over to the bullpen, the wheels quickly fell off the cart, and the Guardians dropped the opener at Minute Maid Park, 7-3.

“I feel like my performance was pretty good,” Syndergaard said. “The mechanics felt pretty automatic. I wasn’t really thinking about what I was doing, just certain cues and let athleticism take over.”

Syndergaard gave up two singles in the first inning. After that, he retired 13 of the next 15 batters he faced as Cleveland built a 2-0 lead. The two who got on reached on a walk and a hit by pitch. It wasn’t until the sixth that he ran into a little trouble. Jose Altuve drew a leadoff walk and stole second base. Then he took third when Jeremy Pe?a rocketed a 101 mph comebacker that smacked into Syndergaard’s right calf. The righty recovered in time to throw out Pe?a at first before the medical staff came on to check on him.

“He threw three pitches [in front of the trainers], and he looked like he was grimacing on all of them,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “I wouldn’t have felt good about [leaving him in there].”

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Syndergaard was removed from the game and was charged with his only run when Kyle Tucker’s single off reliever Eli Morgan scored Altuve. Morgan then allowed a walk, a three-run homer and a single before Nick Sandlin came in to end the inning, and Cleveland was never able to regain the lead.

“It feels worse now than it did when it actually happened,” Syndergaard said of his calf. “But it just made it a little difficult to trust my back side, and [Francona] didn’t want me out there like compensating because of it, potentially risking a different injury. So, it sucks, but just the situation, it was probably the smartest thing to do.”

Syndergaard was able to give his team a decent first impression, though the debut wasn’t flawless. He had two whiffs on the 31 swings that were taken against him. Of the 17 balls put in play, five had a triple-digit exit velocity. He definitely ran into some good luck, but he also showed signs of improvement from the way he started the season with the Dodgers.

“For the most part, he threw strikes,” Francona said. “He used the whole ballpark at times, but you know what? He got them out.”

Entering the night, Syndergaard’s average fastball velocity (his four-seamer, sinker and cutter combined) sat at 91.5 mph, which was two mph slower than his 93.5 average last season and about six mph slower than his average prior to undergoing Tommy John surgery (97.6 in 2019). But on Monday night, his velocity ticked up. His four-seamer averaged 93.5 mph (up 0.9 mph), his three cutters averaged 91.3 mph (up 2 mph) and his sinker averaged 93.9 mph (up 1.6 mph).

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“I felt like not competing in a big league game for [almost] two months, I felt like efficiency and strike-throwing was really good,” Syndergaard said. “I’m just looking forward to getting back on the mound whenever that is and working in between with my side work to help crisp up that offspeed stuff.”

Now more than ever, the Guardians need arms that can eat up innings. With Civale in Tampa Bay and Cal Quantrill, Triston McKenzie and Shane Bieber still on the injured list, this current four-man rotation consists of three rookies and Syndergaard. Because he entered the day with a 7.16 ERA — which ranked the sixth worst among 185 pitchers with at least 50 innings in 2023 — it was hard to know if Syndergaard would be able to help.

But his start on Monday was encouraging. And the biggest takeaway is that he didn’t think too much on the rubber. He just got on the mound and pitched.

“It was just kind of liberating,” Syndergaard said. “I sound like a broken record, but definitely a step in the right direction.”