Noah Syndergaard and Nine Other Mythological Heroes

Noah Syndergaard is one of MLB’s most super hero-like players. (via slgckgc)

A man stands alone on the top of a hill. Seven others are arrayed behind him; ahead of him, an armored knight calls for his attention. But the man on the hill is a loner. Everything begins with him — with what he delivers.

***

When Noah Syndergaard ascended the mound on May 2nd, the season was not going well. His ERA was 6.35. His record was 1-3. He couldn’t handle his breaking pitches and the ball, he said, felt “slick as can be. Like holding an ice cube.” He has earned the nickname Thor not just for his appearance, but for his power, overwhelming and unstoppable as the thunder. The Syndergaard of April 2019 didn’t much resemble a god. He was painfully, obviously human.

Now, though, April had turned to May: a threshold crossed, a chance for a new beginning. Syndergaard shaved his beard and wore his long hair down.

The umpire shouted “Play ball!” Syndergaard struck out Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suarez. Derek Dietrich singled to left field. Already, there was trouble.

Thor got off from the mound and looked to the deepest spot on his catcher’s mitt. He pumped his fist against the inside of his glove. The catcher, Wilson Ramos, ran to the mound but Syndergaard went behind it. As former catcher Mike Lieberthal said: “The most important thing is having a rapport with your pitchers, not just out on the field, but like a friendship.” Yasiel Puig popped up to shortstop Amed Rosario.

An inning over. A trial overcome. Thor walked off the field.

***

In 1876, Harry McCormick began showing some of the traits for which he became known: an arrogant and fearless manner and almost flawless control. It was said that he had such control that he could wave outfielders to particular spots in the field and then make batters hit the ball straight to them. In 1877, he had an incredible year for the Syracuse Stars, pitching 99 complete games in his 100 starts, winning 59 and losing 39, with two ties. He pitched an amazing 898 innings. Pitching from 45 feet, as the 1877 rules required, put much less stress on the pitcher’s arm than the present distance imposes, so he was able to put up numbers that would be impossible today.

In 1878, the Stars joined the International Association and played a schedule that led to decisions in only 36 games. McCormick pitched every game for Syracuse and compiled a 26-10 record. In 1879, the Stars moved up to the National League. McCormick made his major league debut on May 1 at the age of 23. And on July 26, 1879, McCormick became the first National League pitcher to win a 1-0 game with his own home run. His smash off a Boston pitcher went over the left field fence at Syracuse’s Newell Park and into the record books.

***

In the top of the second inning, José Peraza singled to center field. José Iglesias grounded into a double play, shortstop Rosario to second baseman Robinson Canó to first baseman Dominic Smith. Scott Schebler was safe at first on a fielding error by Syndergaard. Curt Casali flied out to right fielder Michael Conforto. Syndergaard’s gaze now surrounded the whole field, he waited for the last of his teammates to come to the dugout: like a determined captain waiting for his men to board his vessel, Jason on the Argo seeking the Golden Fleece.

***

Purchased by the Chicago Orphans (later Cubs) from Omaha of the Western League in September 1900, Tom Hughes pitched a major league career-high 308.1 innings for the Orphans in 1901. Despite a lackluster 10-23 record, Hughes’ occasional brilliance on the mound (including a 1-0, 17-inning victory over Bill Dineen), aroused the interest of two American League managers, Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics and John McGraw of the Baltimore Orioles. McGraw outbid Mack for Hughes’ services, and he reported to Baltimore for the 1902 season.

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Hughes played for the Boston Americans in 1903, before he was traded to the New York Highlanders for the 1904 season. In the middle of that season, the Highlanders shipped Hughes and pitcher Barney Wolfe to the Washington Senators for Al Orth. In 1905, Hughes enjoyed one of his best seasons in Washington, finishing the year with a 2.35 ERA in 291.1 innings, though his 17 wins were offset by 20 losses. He pitched six shutouts, five against the Cleveland Naps.

Frustrated pitching for the league’s doormats, Hughes slumped in 1906, as he posted a 7-17 record, throwing 87 ⅓ fewer innings, his ERA jumping to 3.62. Late in the season, Hughes quit the team, declaring, “The American League is a joke. I am tired of being the scapegoat of the Washington club for the last two years…Rather than come back to Washington, I will join an amateur club or play with the outlaws.”

On August 3, 1906, Hughes hurled a 1-0 four-hitter against the St. Louis Browns at Sportsman Park II. He hit a homer in the top of the 10th inning to decide the game.

***

In the top of the third, Reds pitcher Tyler Mahle struck out. Winker grounded out, second baseman Canó to first baseman Smith. Eugenio Suarez walked on four pitches. Dietrich flied out to center fielder Brandon Nimmo.

In the bottom of that inning, Syndergaard homered to left field on the first pitch, a 407-foot shot. The talks about designated hitter coming to the National League faded for a while, faced with another proof that pitchers aren’t an automatic out — at least not all of them. After all, once upon a time, there were pitchers like Gary Peters who were lined up as high as sixth in the Chicago White Sox order, in front of hitters as Al Weis, Wayne Causey, Tim Cullen, and J.C. Martin.

***

In 1908, Gene Packard pitched for the Independence Champs of the Class D Oklahoma-Arkansas-Kansas League. On July 26, he posted a one-hit shutout victory over Tulsa, and followed that up two weeks later with a 10-strikeout perfect game against the first place Bartlesville Boosters. In 1912, he had a breakout season with Columbus Senators, going 24-8. Before the season was over, Packard was in the National League, drafted by the Cincinnati Reds. He made his major league debut on September 27, 1912, going the distance in a 10-2 victory over the Cubs.

Packard actually ended up pitching for the new circuit’s Kansas City Packers. Pitching for a sixth place (67-84) club, Packard turned in a standout season going 20-14, with a 2.89 ERA and 154 strikeouts in a yeoman’s 302 innings pitched. Packard often helped his own cause with the stick, batting a respectable .241, and he was generally considered one of the best fielding pitchers in baseball. He backed up his fine 1914 campaign with a repeat the following year. He was again the staff ace for an improved (81-72) Packers club, going 20-12, with a 2.68 ERA in 283 innings pitched.

On September 29, 1915, Packard defeated the St. Louis Terriers 1-0 at Handlan’s Park. Packard just allowed four hits and a walk and hit a home run in the top of the sixth inning.

***

Top of the fourth. Puig flied out to right fielder Conforto. Peraza flied out to center fielder Brandon Nimmo. Iglesias grounded out, third baseman Todd Frazier to first baseman Smith. As Syndergaard got closer to the dugout from the mound, he looked at some banner in the stand: a remembrance of the Miracle Mets of 1969.

***

Red Ruffing had four straight 20-win seasons and the Yankees got four championships from 1936 to 1939. He hurled 42 of his 48 career shutouts for New York. In 1938, his 21 wins topped the American League, as did his .750 winning percentage and four shutouts. In World Series competition, he had a 7-2 record.

Ruffing was also one of the best-hitting pitchers of all time, with career marks of .269 (10th among pitchers with 500 at-bats), 36 homers (third), 273 RBI, and 58 hits in 228 pinch-hitting appearances. He batted over .300 eight times, his .364 (40 for 110) in 1930 standing as the second-best single-season average for a pitcher. (Walter Johnson hit for .433 in 1925.) The courageous Ruffing achieved what he did despite having lost four toes from his left foot in a mine accident as a youngster. The injury cut down on his velocity, and the pain, he said, never ceased.

On August 13, 1932, Ruffing beat the Washington Senators 1-0 at Griffith Stadium. He allowed only three hits and two walks while striking out 12. He smacked a homer in the top of the 10th inning. Between the fourth and eighth innings, Ruffing retired 14 Senators in a row.

***

Top of the fifth, Schebler grounded out, shortstop Rosario to first baseman Smith. Casali fouled out to first baseman Smith. Mahle struck out.

***

In the 1938 season, Spud Chandler cracked the regular rotation, which was fronted by the trio of Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez, and Monte Pearson. He made twenty-three starts and completed fourteen in 1938, despite battling aches and pains throughout the season. With a lineup featuring Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, and Lou Gehrig, his primary responsibility was to keep the games close. Chandler won his 14th game on September 5 and pitched once more before a sore elbow that ended his season. For the second year in a row, he sat out the World Series. On May 21, 1938, Chandler defeated the Chicago White Sox 1-0 at Comiskey Park I. He batted in the only run of the game by homering in the top of the eighth inning. He allowed eight hits and no walks to the Sox.

***

Top of the sixth, Winker struck out. Suárez singled to right. Dietrich grounded into a double play, second baseman Canó to shortstop Rosario to first baseman Smith.

***

Early Wynn joined with Billy Pierce to give the White Sox a formidable one-two punch at the top of their rotation, and his Cy Young Award-winning performance in 1959 led the club to its first American League pennant since 1919. Four years later, at age 43, he became the 14th member of baseball’s 300-win club. On May 1, he pitched a one-hit shutout against the Boston Red Sox and hit a home run that provided the only scoring in the 1-0 victory. At age 39, he led the league in innings pitched, started that season’s first All-Star Game for the American League, and won a league-leading 22 games, pitching the White Sox to their first American League flag in 40 years. Wynn’s 21st win of the season, a 4-2 victory over Cleveland on September 22, clinched the pennant and set off a night of celebration on Chicago’s South Side.

***

Top of the seventh, Puig flied out to right fielder Conforto. Peraza struck out. Iglesias struck out.

***

On June 21, Father’s Day, Jim Bunning was scheduled to pitch the first game of a doubleheader against the Mets at Shea Stadium in New York. Philadelphia sportswriter Larry Merchant wrote in Sport magazine, “Manager [Gene] Mauch felt he saw something different in Bunning before anyone else.”

“We knew when he was warming up that this was something special,” Mauch said. “The way he was throwing so live and as high as he was. Not high with his pitches. High himself.”

Four innings of the game passed and Bunning had a perfect game going. There were no hard chances for the Philadelphia fielders. Sensing something special was happening, Mauch moved players around defensively. In the fifth inning, he switched Cookie Rojas from shortstop to left field to replace Wes Covington, and put Bobby Wine in at shortstop.

Bunning came close to losing his perfect game in the fifth, when Mets catcher Jesse Gonder smashed a line drive between second and first. Second baseman Tony Taylor lunged to his left, knocked the ball down, crawled on his knees to grab the ball, and nipped Gonder at first. That was the last play in the game that resembled a hit for the Mets. Bunning was not afraid to talk about his possible perfect game, but his teammates, fearing to jinx him, were silent. “Dive for the ball,” he told his infielders. “Don’t let anything fall in.”

With one out in the ninth, Bunning called catcher Gus Triandos to the mound. He asked Triandos if he could tell him a joke to relax him. Triandos looked at Bunning as if he were crazy, laughed, and went back behind the plate. Pinch-hitter George Altman slammed a long foul into the right-field seats. Then Bunning struck him out. The last batter was pinch-hitter John Stephenson and Bunning struck him out on a curve. Bunning pounded his glove and his teammates rushed out to greet him. It was the fifth perfect game in major-league history, and the first in the regular season since Charlie Robertson of the Chicago White Sox pitched one on April 30, 1922. It was the first in the NL since 1880.

Bunning was 19-9 in 1965 with an ERA of 2.60. On May 5, 1965, Bunning threw a four-hitter 1-0 win for the Philadelphia Phillies at Shea Stadium, just allowed a walk. He homered in the top of the sixth frame.

***

Top of the eighth, Schebler grounded out, shortstop Rosario to first baseman Peter Alonso. Tucker Barnhart, pinch-hitting for Casali, flied out to left fielder McNeil. Joey Votto pinch-hit for Robert Stephenson and struck out.

***

In 1971, the Chicago Cubs called Juan Pizarro up from Triple-A Tacoma in July and used him mainly as a starter (14 times in 16 outings). On August 1 at New York’s Shea Stadium, Pizarro went all the way and beat the Mets’ ace, Seaver, 3-2. Four days later, he threw his other big-league one-hitter, blanking San Diego at Wrigley Field. On September 16, again at Shea, once more he bested Seaver, who was having his greatest season ever. The final score was 1-0 – and Pizarro’s solo homer in the eighth inning accounted for the game’s only run.

***

Top of the ninth, Kyle Farmer struck out pinch-hitting for Winker. Suárez flied out to right fielder Conforto. Dietrich singled to right. Michael Lorenzen pinch-running for Dietrich, stole second. Puig struck out.

Syndergaard got off the mound, shook hands with his catcher and moved quickly, almost jogging to the dugout. His gaze had the steeliness of a hero from some age of myth, a Samson, a Hercules — or perhaps a Tom Seaver, when he completed his almost-perfect game and told his wife Nancy: “What are you crying for? We won 4-0.”

***

On June 17, 1983, Bob Welch took the hill for the Dodgers in Los Angeles against the visiting Cincinnati Reds. Normally, you’d expect it to be an easy win for the Dodgers, as they clearly were the superior team. The day began with LA sporting a 41-20 record, a full 15 games better than Cincinnati. However, the Reds had a nice leveling factor. Their ace pitcher, Mario Soto, was on the mound. An All-Star the previous year—and would be again this year—Soto’s ERA was barely over 2.00. While Welch was a nice pitcher, he was no Soto.

And it looked like Soto brought his A-game that day. Through five innings, the Dodgers could manage just two scratch singles and a walk, and the walk was erased in a foiled stolen-base attempt. The home team hadn’t even come close to scoring. Through six innings, Welch had allowed nine base runners, but none had scored.

Heading into the bottom of the sixth, the game was still looking for its first run. Unfortunately for Soto, the Dodgers were about to find it. Leading off the sixth, Soto allowed a solo home run. Worse than that, the home run came off the bat of none other than Welch.

Soto recovered nicely, striking out the next three batters to end the inning, but it was still 1-0 Dodgers. Well, eventually the Reds would have to get to Welch, right? He couldn’t keep pitching his way out of jams.

Welch, indeed, couldn’t keep pitching his way out of jams — so instead, he stopped pitching his way into them. Over the remaining three innings, Welch let just two Reds reach base. One was a meaningless single and the other a two-out base on balls in the ninth.

***

The pitcher is the one who defines what’s going to happen in baseball. For years now, it hasn’t been quite the same. The image of the lone driving force diluted by specialization and pitch counts, the setup man, the closer. But sometimes it still happens, and you have to clasp your fingers in front of your eyes, wondering if what you’re seeing is true.

Like that day on May 2nd, when the Reds visited the Mets at Citi Field, and Noah Syndergaard stood alone. When a game like this takes place now, it’s almost like something out of Greek mythology: Achilles rising far above the other warriors for a brief time, shining golden in the light. One might ask, “Is this how it used to be?”

References & Resources

Shatzkin, Mike, and Charlton, Jim. The Ballplayers. New York. The Idea Logical Press. 1999. pp. 945.

retrosheet.org

Faber, Charles F. “Harry McCormick.” SABR BioProject.

Stahl, John. “Tom Hughes.” SABR BioProject.

Lamb, Bill. “Gene Packard.” SABR BioProject.

Corbett, Warren. “Red Ruffing.” SABR BioProject.

Stewart, Mark. “Spud Chandler.” SABR BioProject.

Fleitz, David. “Early Wynn.” SABR BioProject.

Berger, Ralph. “Jim Bunning.” SABR BioProject.

Seiner, Jake.“Thor strikes! Syndergaard HRs, goes 9 as Mets beat Reds 1-0.” AP. May 3, 2019.

Costello, Rory. “Juan Pizarro.” SABR BioProject.

Jaffe, Chris. “30th anniversary: Bob Welch does it all.The Hardball Times. June 17, 2013.

Vass, George. The Game I’ll Never Forget. Bonus Books.


Alfonso L. Tusa is a chemical technician and writer from Venezuela. His work has been featured in El Nacional, Norma Editorial and the Society for American Baseball Research, where he has contributed to several books and published several entries for the SABR Bio Project. He has written several novellas and books and contributed to others, including Voces de Beisbol y Ecología and Pensando en tí Venezuela. Una biografía de Dámaso Blanco. Follow him on Twitter @natural30.

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JupiterBrando
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JupiterBrando

Fun read! thanks

Yehoshua Friedman
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Yehoshua Friedman

Nice article! The switches between Thor and the baseball demigods of yore was effective, allowed no runs and hit one out for a 1-0 win. That is just the best outcome there is for a game from an esthetic POV. BTW, didn’t Gallardo do that as well?