FOX Sports MLB analyst
PHILADELPHIA — Game 5 of the World Series won’t be the first time Noah Syndergaard and Justin Verlander have shared a building. It’s just that Thursday night there will be a few more people.
For two separate blocks of time – April 2020 to May 2020 and again from October 2020 to early February 2021 – Syndergaard and Verlander saw each other several times a week. Under the cavernous roof of the warehouse at Cressey Sports Performance gym in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., two of the game’s most famous pitchers spent hours and hours healing from injuries. For Syndergaard, it was a controversial Tommy John operation in late March 2020, while Verlander rehabilitated groin surgery on March 17 and then, in November, a Tommy John of his own.
In part because their different injury and recovery schedules meant they never exercised together together The two men did not become close friends. No lifetime bond was maintained. There’s also no animosity or beef; it’s just that nobody comes to anyone else’s Thanksgiving dinner. But as the two slingers performed their physical therapy sessions in private, they developed an implicit respect and appreciation for one another.
By sharing a space, a physiotherapist and most importantly, the shared experience of rehab with Tommy John, Syndergaard and Verlander indirectly fueled each other during what was perhaps the most vulnerable phase of their careers.
Luckily, the two pitchers both signed one-year deals with clubs in the AL West and faced each other on their first starts of the 2022 season. For Verlander, who conquered a second-career Cy Young in the season before tearing his UCL, it was the No. 1 outing on an MLB hill after TJ. And while Syndergaard made two one-inning appearances for the Mets in late 2021 to showcase himself before reaching free agency, his Angels debut against Verlander was his first real start with his new elbow.
On that day in April, Syndergaard passed Verlander, allowing just two hits in five and a third goalless innings in a 2–0 Angels win. Verlander looked sharp himself, hitting a seven in five frames, but suffered an unlucky loss thanks to a Jared Walsh solo shot. Thor’s superiority was no sign of the future.
From there the seasons of Verlander and Syndergaard diverged. The Astros ace has rediscovered the magic and carved his way to a microscopic 1.75 ERA in 28 starts. In a few months, Verlander will enlist a third Cy Young for his exploits.
Syndergaard, who the Angels signed to a one-year, $21 million deal in November 2021, has had a much less insistent comeback campaign. Because of the surgery, his signature speed disappeared — in 2019 he threw 1,718 pitches over 96 MPH, in 2022 he threw just 8 as hard — and as a result, his first season back was solid rather than spectacular.
On deadline day, Anaheim Philly dealt the big right-hander. Syndergaard, who was expected to solidify the back of the Phillies rotation, tussled when he joined his new club and had been at the end of September relegated to the bullpen for the first time in his career.
But the baseball gods work in mysterious ways. Thanks to the whims of Mother Nature and a lack of other obvious pitching options for the Phillies, Syndergaard and Verlander’s paths will cross again. But this time it won’t be on opposite sides of an empty gym, echoing with the occasional clink, pop or grunt; It will take place in front of a cacophonous, sold-out World Series crowd, with an impressive 3-2 series up for grabs.
Fans wave rally towels during Game 3 of the 2022 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Eric Schönberg remembers the eeriness of it all. The Head of Diamond Physical Therapy, which operates at the same facility under the Cressey Sports Performance umbrella, was one of the few people present during those early Verlander / Syndergaard rehab days of the pandemic. On Thursday he will be one of over 45,000 at Citizens Bank Park.
When the state of Florida, like many other states at the time, began locking down nonessential businesses, Diamond Physical Therapy stayed open thanks to its status as a medical provider. Schoenberg had initially planned to temporarily close the facility until he learned that Syndergaard was looking for a place to recuperate. That changed his plans. A day later he found out that Verlander also needed a place.
“It wasn’t just me and the two alone in the gym,” Schoenberg told FOX Sports. “But in terms of setup, it was definitely more intimate than usual.”
Widely regarded as one of the premier sports training facilities in the country, the Cressey Sports Performance Complex on Florida’s east coast is usually a busy center for top athletes. But at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, only a handful of rehabilitating players were allowed on site. This meant that Syndergaard and Verlander saw each other, in Syndergaard’s own words, “often”.
But that closeness, even as Verlander returned to rehab that fall from his Tommy John surgery in late September, didn’t translate into the kind of relationship you’d expect.
“Noah and Justin didn’t need each other’s presence to be motivated to work and come back,” Schoenberg, who oversaw both Syndergaard’s and Verlander’s rehab process, explained. “But I think maybe seeing the other work so hard to defy the odds has fueled each other. I’d say there’s probably a little bit of it, but a lot of it has been unspoken.”
What speaks volumes is that Syndergaard called out Schoenberg and Verlander in his World Series press conference as of Wednesday. It’s clear that the opportunity to take on Verlander, a figure the younger pitcher looks up to, an example he’s watched from afar at Cressey for so many days, is of legitimate importance to Syndergaard.
“Justin is a guy I’ve looked up to my entire life,” admitted the Phillies Game 5 starter. “And to be able to go toe-to-toe with him again… the whole opportunity just chills me.”
The Phillies will be hoping Syndergaard can put those chills on hold for two or three innings and deliver the biggest start of his season. After Houston’s resounding victory in Game 4 behind a combined no-hitter, the World Series is on the brink. An Astros win in Game 5 would give the American League champions a distinct advantage going home. A resurgence for the Phillies would keep them just one win away from stardom.
Verlander, still on his ninth attempt for his first career World Series win, is looking to bounce back from a disappointing start in Game 1. Syndergaard, who was originally set to field Game 3 before Regen changed Philly’s plans, is expected to get through Astros ordering just one. It’s an intriguing showdown between two pitchers who were at one point at the top of the pitching world. Sure, Verlander’s continued success puts him in another hemisphere, but young Syndergaard was a hoss, a guy you wouldn’t want to see 60ft 6in away.
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Their bizarre, winding paths brought them here to South Philadelphia on a temperate November night. Schoenberg, who attended Games 1 and 2 in Houston, was invited by both Syndergaard and Verlander to fly for their Game 5 faceoff. He will be present on Thursday evening.
“There is no logical reason why this is happening. But the fact that they compete against each other. In a fifth game of the World Series, it’s just wild.”
Jake Mintz, the louder half of @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, so he leads a solitary existence most October days. When he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.
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