A year ago last week, the Las Vegas 51s came to Sacramento to play the River Cats with a couple of hot young pitching prospects who started back-to-back games at Raley Field. Neither looked so great, but six months later Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz would become two of the biggest names in baseball.
In that series, Syndergaard gave up two earned runs in four innings and did not figure in the decision, but he’s since done very well.
Called up by the New York Mets, he struck out 166 big leaguers in 150 innings, beat Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta in the second game of the National League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs, and won the third game of the World Series. He did lose a game in the division series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, leaving in the seventh inning with the lead and watching from the dugout the next at-bat when Chase Utley broke Ruben Tejada’s leg. Syndergaard came back to pitch a scoreless seventh inning with two strikeouts in the deciding fifth game won by the Mets.
Now 23, Syndergaard is doing OK this year, too. He is tied for the major-league lead in strikeouts with 29, against only four walks. He is 2-0 with an ERA of 0.90.
Matz, who lost his five-inning start last year in Sacramento, won all four of his decisions in six starts for the Mets. He also started a game in the World Series and had a no-decision against the champion Kansas City Royals. In the NLCS sweep of the Cubs, Matz pitched the Mets to a 6-1 lead with two outs in the bottom of the fifth when manager Terry Collins yanked the rookie one out short of qualifying for the win. You can’t criticize Collins’ decision – Bartolo Colon struck out Kris Bryant with two on and the Mets won 8-3. It was the closest Matz came to a postseason victory. He also lost to Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers in the division series.
This year, Matz, 25, is the fifth starter in the Mets’ rotation.
Knowing what we know now about recent Mets’ prospects, it is important to look over the 51s’ 2016 lineup, with the team finishing a four-game series with the River Cats on Thursday night at Raley Field.
While it appears they don’t have any Syndergaards or Matzes, right-hander Gabriel Ynoa, 23, still has time to prove that assertion premature. The 51s also have handymen everywhere; a couple of the young guys could be special.
The request was put before 51s manager Wally Backman to tell us who we might be seeing later in the summer when the major-league season gets serious.
“We’re hoping there’s no injuries in the big leagues, but if there is, we have a good core of players here that can fill in up there,” Backman said Tuesday from the visitors clubhouse at Raley Field. “If somebody gets hurt, you’ve got Matt Reynolds that can play all three positions. You’ve got Dilson Herrera, who in my opinion at some point in his career is going to be an All-Star second baseman. We have two number-one picks in (shortstop Gavin) Cecchini – he’s still learning – and (center fielder) Brandon Nimmo. But we’ve got veterans like Roger Bernadina, who hit .290-something with the Washington Nationals a few years back.”
Few of the gems shined in the 51s’ 12-1 loss Tuesday to Sacramento, although Herrera smoked a double and ran out an infield single and Bernadina doubled.
River Cats starter Chris Stratton rode 21 hits to his first win of the year. Earlier in the day, two of his pitching pals, Steve Okert and Mike Broadway, were called up to the Giants. Who knows if either will be able to pull off stunts like Syndergaard and Matz last year, but it sounded as if Stratton knows what the path entails, for them or anybody else.
“You’ve got to take it one game at a time,” Stratton said. “That’s the way they take it up there, and that’s the way you’ve got to take it right here. Go out there and do your best. Just keep trying to improve each outing.”
Talking about prospects, Backman has worked himself back into the conversation as a possible major-league manager. The one-time second baseman and charter member of the 1986 World Series champion Mets is now in his 14th year as a minor-league manager. His teams have won four league championships, and he was named Minor League Manager of the Year by the Sporting News in 2004. The same year, the Arizona Diamondbacks announced him as their skipper, but they blew up the deal when they learned Backman has a conviction for a DUI and another related to a domestic dispute.
Eleven years of no intervening incidents would suggest he has earned forgiveness and consideration for a major-league job.
“I know how to run a game,” Backman said.
If and how and when he makes the big leap remain intriguing questions. The last step is often the most difficult, but once it is made is when the magic happens, as Matz and Syndergaard know.