KANSAS CITY -- Having exhausted their supply of pomp and circumstance after the second of two pregame ceremonies at Kauffman Stadium, Royals fans moved on to mocking Noah Syndergaard. They berated him with boos on Tuesday as the Mets right-hander loosened in the bullpen.
Syndergaard chuckled to himself as the stadium's PA system blared "American Woman" while he warmed in the first.
So imagine the glee at Kauffman when, minutes into Tuesday's series finale, Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar hit a leadoff triple against Syndergaard, the fan base's newly minted villain. Then imagine the deflation when Syndergaard struck out the next three batters in succession during the Mets' 2-0 win.
The first came on an 89-mph slider that moments later seemed pedestrian. The second was on a 91-mph changeup, faster than any pitch opposing starter Chris Young threw all afternoon. The third and final strikeout came on another slider, this one 92 mph.
"I felt like I really took it to the next level," Syndergaard said.
Nothing Syndergaard did last season -- not even the 101-mph fastballs he shot from a cannon last October -- could have prepared the Royals for this. In his first start of 2016, Syndergaard was simply unhittable, topping out at 99.9 mph on his sinker, according to Statcast™, and 93.2 mph on his slider. He struck out nine in six innings, which is impressive enough before realizing that the Royals -- the league's most difficult team to whiff by a significant margin -- struck out nine-plus times in an entire game on just seven occasions last season.
What's more, Syndergaard allowed only three hits. He gave up no runs. And he did it all before one of the more hostile crowds he is liable to see this season: 39,782 screaming Royals fans, still angry with him for knocking down Escobar with the first pitch of World Series Game 3.
"That's the bulldog in him," manager Terry Collins said of Syndergaard. "This guy's tough as anything."
Tough, to be certain, but not always was Syndergaard so devilish on the mound. As recently as this time last year, Syndergaard was self-admittedly a stubborn fastball thrower, confident that his triple-digit heater was enough to retire batters. When he gained confidence in his offspeed pitches, learning to throw them in fastball counts, Syndergaard developed into one of the game's top young players. But that was apparently not the end of his development. This spring, Syndergaard worked on perfecting the same type of mid-90s slider that pitching coach Dan Warthen previously taught Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom.
Syndergaard threw 16 of them against the Royals, averaging 92.4 mph on the pitch to generate six swings and misses.
"It's got to be the hardest thing you can do as a hitter," Collins said of touching Syndergaard's slider.
When there was trouble, Syndergaard turned to the pitch, whiffing Mike Moustakas on one and freezing Eric Hosmer on another after Escobar's triple in the first. Four innings later, Syndergaard allowed another leadoff extra-base hit, only to strike out Alex Gordon on a 99-mph fastball and Salvador Perez on a 92-mph slider, before ending the inning with a slider-induced groundout. In the sixth, when Syndergaard loaded the bases with a two-run lead, he threw one of his hardest breaking balls of the afternoon to whiff Kendrys Morales.
"I kind of shocked myself with how good my slider was," Syndergaard said. "It felt good in Spring Training, but I amped it up today."
Teammate Neil Walker marveled that Syndergaard's slider comes in hard enough to resemble a left-handed pitcher throwing a sinker. But Syndergaard's own sinker shot out of his hand at an average of 99.5 mph, per Statcast™, only adding to the intimidation factor he has spent the past six months cultivating.
Of course, it's that desire to be intimidating that has turned Syndergaard into a villain in outposts like Kansas City, where Royals fans want nothing more than to see him lose.
Syndergaard's decision to embrace that -- "American Woman," so be it -- has simply made him that much tougher to beat.
"I've never been known to be a guy that's hated," Syndergaard said. "I just kind of thought it was funny and went about my business."