NEW YORK -- If Noah Syndergaard had never returned to the mound in September, he would have considered this a summer devoid of redeeming qualities. Syndergaard's weeks of rest wasted. His physical therapy wasted. His arm strengthening exercises, his weight-lifting, his throwing program wasted.
All Syndergaard wanted was a chance, however brief, to get a glimpse of the return on his blood, sweat and angst. He finally received it Saturday amid all the pomp and circumstance a fourth-place Mets team could muster, usurping Matt Harvey's role to start the Mets' 4-3 10-inning loss to the Nationals at Citi Field. Syndergaard threw five pitches, four of them strikes, in a scoreless first inning. He earned two standing ovations.
It didn't matter that this was a lightning-flash of an outing; it was an important one for Syndergaard's psyche, and for a Mets team curious about his recovery from an April 30 lat tear. While the awkwardness of the situation was plain to see -- Harvey, whom the Mets scheduled to pitch the second inning, began warming before Syndergaard even toed the rubber -- the 34,455 at Citi Field hardly seemed to notice.
Syndergaard received a warm ovation when he walked in from the bullpen, then another when he took the mound. As Syndergaard prepared to make his first start in nearly five months, AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" blared over the stadium speakers. One of his opponents, former teammate Daniel Murphy, remarked after the game that "the game's in a better place when Noah's healthy."
It did not take much to imagine this September game under different circumstances, with Syndergaard leading the Mets into a winner-take-all showdown against Murphy's Nationals. Instead, the NL East-champion Nats and fourth-place Mets both filled their lineups with reserves in a game that promised little impact on the standings.
For the Mets, Syndergaard's lost summer was a critical reason why. The right-hander began complaining of biceps tendinitis late in April, but declined to undergo an MRI. Days later, he tore his right lat, sidelining him for nearly five months.
Without him and so many others, the Mets floundered, never giving the Nationals much of a challenge in the NL East. The team could not salvage its season Saturday night. But Syndergaard could at least prove to the Mets -- and himself -- that he will be ready to return in prime form next spring.
Of his five pitches, Syndergaard threw four of them 98 or 99 mph. He allowed one hit, then coaxed an inning-ending double-play ball from Murphy.
"The point was to get him out there, get him in the game, get him one inning," said manager Terry Collins, adding that the Mets hope to give Syndergaard one more abbreviated start down the stretch. "It was all about just getting him on the mound, really for him and to get out there knowing he's going to be OK."
Syndergaard's performance came in stark contrast to that of Harvey, who gave up three runs in four innings to increase his September ERA to 12.27. Harvey, too, is part of the Mets' 2018 plans, though the team is far less certain of what he might be able to provide.
"I'm trying to move in the right direction, and I think tonight was a good step for me," Harvey said. "Obviously there's still a lot of work to be done."
Anthony DiComo has covered the Mets for MLB.com since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo and Facebook, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.