It took four spring training starts for Noah Syndergaard to come to grips with the fact that, despite his December proclamation that there is “no excuse as to why I can’t get back to 100 mph,” his once-vaunted fastball is not going to approach triple digits like it did before 2020 elbow surgery.
“If I don’t throw 100 [mph] again,” the new Dodgers pitcher said on the eve of the regular season, “that’s fine.”
They will gladly take Sunday’s version of Syndergaard, when the right-hander displayed superb command of a four-pitch mix and held the Arizona Diamondbacks to one run and four hits in six innings, striking out six and walking none, in a 2-1 loss before a crowd of 46,549 in Dodger Stadium.
“I thought he was really good early, that life, the teeth, to all of his pitches, the swing-and-miss,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “He was very efficient. He did a great job managing that lineup. … Unfortunately, we just couldn't put up a crooked number today.”
An offense that amassed 18 runs and 20 hits in the two games the Dodgers won in the season-opening, four-game series mustered one run — on Will Smith’s 347-foot homer off the left-field foul pole in the first inning — and four hits on Sunday.
The top three batters in the order, Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and Smith, combined to go four for 10. The bottom six went 0 for 21. The Dodgers struck out 11 times and went hitless in six at-bats with runners in scoring position.
“I still like our lineup,” Roberts said. “I just think there's a few guys that haven't gotten on track yet.”
The Diamondbacks broke a 1-1 tie in the top of the ninth off reliever Brusdar Graterol, whose inability to neutralize left-handed hitters and generate enough swing-and-miss — the two biggest reasons the hard-throwing right-hander hasn’t seized a closing role — cost the Dodgers.
Ketel Marte slapped an opposite-field double inside the third-base bag. Lourdes Gurriel grounded a single to right. Betts, who moved from second base to the outfield to start the ninth, charged, fielded the ball cleanly and fired a laser to the plate to nail Marte, a call that was upheld by instant replay.
“To play eight innings of second base, and the first play out there, you throw a strike to home to really impact the game at that point …” Roberts said, “It’s just pretty special.”
Betts’ second outfield assist of the season provided a temporary reprieve. Christian Walker singled to center. Corbin Carroll grounded into a fielder’s choice to put men on first and third with two outs. Carroll stole second.
Jake McCarthy tapped a drag bunt toward first base. Graterol, one of the better fielding pitchers in baseball, raced toward the line and tried to scoop the ball with his glove and swipe a tag on the speedy McCarthy in one motion. But the ball squirted out of his glove, allowing Gurriel to score for a 2-1 lead. The bunt was ruled a hit.
“Those guys like to do that stuff, so I wasn’t entirely surprised,” Smith, the Dodgers catcher, said of the bunt. “But I’d take [Graterol] as a pitcher fielding his position over anybody. I think he makes that play 99 times out of 100.”
The late run spoiled a Dodgers debut in which Syndergaard’s fastball averaged 92.7 mph and topped out at 94.3 mph. But he had good feel for a 90-mph cut-fastball and kept hitters off balance with an 87-mph changeup that finished four of his strikeouts. He threw 57 of 78 pitches for strikes and induced 13 swinging strikes.
“Physically and mentally, I felt really good,” Syndergaard said. “The changeup and cutter were working well at the beginning of the game. For the most part, I felt confident throwing any pitch in any given count.”
Syndergaard retired the side in order in the second, third, fourth and sixth innings. He was nicked for a run in the fifth when Carroll singled, stole second and third on consecutive pitches with two outs and scored when Geraldo Perdomo dunked a double to shallow right for a 1-1 tie.
Syndergaard was pulled after yielding a leadoff single to Walker in the seventh and received a rousing ovation as he walked off the field.
“It was awesome,” Syndergaard said. “I'm a big believer in first impressions. New home, new fan base, so I just wanted to go out there and execute and attack hitters and just leave a really good impression. Now we got the first one over, nerves kind of calmed down. All in all, I think it was a really good outing.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.