Imagine stepping into the batter’s box and seeing “Rocky IV” villain Ivan Drago on the mound.
That’s essentially the scenario hitters will encounter this season when they face 51s starter Noah Syndergaard — the 6-foot-6-inch, 240-pound right-hander armed with a fastball that was clocked at 100 mph last season.
Ranked the New York Mets’ No. 1 prospect and the No. 11 prospect in baseball by MLB.com, the blond-haired Syndergaard arrived at his first big league training camp in March to find a photo of Drago taped to his locker.
“That was my original nickname from the Blue Jays,” said Syndergaard, whom Toronto drafted in the first round in 2010 and traded to the Mets in the December 2012 deal for R.A. Dickey.
“A lot of the Latin (players) had decided I looked like Ivan Drago and started calling me ‘ruso,’ which is Russian in Spanish. So that was pretty cool.”
Syndergaard, who has scrawled “Drago” on one of his gloves, also earned the moniker “Thor” while with Toronto.
“Thor’s home planet is Asgard. It sounds like my last name so they ran with it,” the 21-year-old said. “I think it’s pretty cool. I’m not going to complain about it at all.”
Syndergaard, who dressed as the mythical hammer-wielding god for a Halloween workout last year, may have a foreign-sounding name but he was born and raised in Mansfield, Texas, and is a power pitcher in the mold of fellow Texans Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan.
“I really like Nolan Ryan, just because of his work ethic,” he said. “And he was a freak of nature in the weight room as well.”
An avid weight lifter, Syndergaard has packed on about 20 pounds of muscle since turning pro. He also practices yoga for flexibility and boxes “just for fun and a little extra conditioning.”
“I like to work out,” he said. “It makes the job easier on the field and improves all aspects of your game, mentally and physically.”
Initially recruited as a hitter by Dallas Baptist University, Syndergaard began hitting the weights hard before his senior year of high school and increased his velocity from the high 80s to the high 90s by the end of the season.
“Every start, I started progressing, from 93 my first start to 98 (my final one),” he said.
Known to squat up to 500 pounds at Ryan Mentzel’s Athletes Enhancement training center in Midlothian, Tx. — where he holds his own among NFL players such as Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller — Syndergaard was told to take it down a notch recently by Matt Harvey, the injured Mets ace.
“He told me not to go in the weight room and try to lift like a linebacker,” Syndergaard said. “To try to be smart about things, that it’s a long season and try to take it easy on your body.”
If all goes according to plan, Syndergaard will follow the same path as Harvey in 2012 and Zack Wheeler in 2013, spending the first part of the season in Triple A before making his major league debut around mid-June.
“He’s a big leaguer waiting to happen,” 51s manager Wally Backman said. “He’s got a power arm. He’s 96 to 98 (mph) and he locates to both sides of the plate. He has a down angle, a power breaking ball and a good changeup, too. He’s going to be fun to watch.”
Syndergaard got the win in his Triple-A debut Friday in an 11-8 victory over the Fresno Grizzlies before a crowd of 7,585 at Cashman Field.
He struck out Gary Brown, the first batter he faced, and had five strikeouts in six innings, touching 97 mph. He allowed two runs on six hits, walked one and helped his cause with an RBI single.
Last season, Syndergaard went a combined 9-4 with a 3.05 ERA and 133 strikeouts in 117 2/3 innings for Double-A Binghamton and Single-A St. Lucie.
He entered Friday with a 22-12 career mark, a 2.64 ERA and 329 strikeouts in 293 2/3 innings.
Las Vegas third baseman Zach Lutz started for the Mets in Syndergaard’s first spring start against the Atlanta Braves and gave him a rave review.
“I was pretty much amazed by it, because it was against the Braves and the first inning he struck out everybody. I was kind of blown away by it,” he said. “With his work ethic, he’s bound to be an All-Star at some point.”
Aside from his repertoire, which includes a curveball Mets manager Terry Collins called “a hook from hell,” Lutz said Syndergaard’s mound presence reminds him of Harvey.
“When I played with Harvey, whenever he had the ball, you know he’s going to go out there trying to dominate,” he said. “He wanted the ball every single game. That’s what you saw with Wheeler last year and with Syndergaard this year. He’s not going to back down from the challenge.”
If he performs as expected, Syndergaard should open next season in the Mets’ rotation with Harvey and Wheeler.
“Just to be in the same sentence as those two is pretty neat,” Syndergaard said. “They’re on top of their game and they’re pretty disgusting on the mound.”
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.