Earlier this season, Matt Harvey had a dream. It came to him the night before a start and unfolded much like a popular ad he had just seen on television.
"You know that commercial," he said on a quiet morning in the clubhouse, recalling how NBA star Kevin Durant leaps for a dunk, gets blocked from out of nowhere by Dwyane Wade, then wakes up in a cold sweat and with the motivation to train harder after the nightmare. "I kind of had one of those dreams."
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Harvey's version is slightly different. He's on the mound in Philadelphia. Jimmy Rollins digs in to lead off the game. Harvey rears back to throw a fastball. Rollins unloads for a home run. Harvey wakes up.
Defeat is his nightmare.
"I've always had the extreme fight to win," said Harvey, the phenom who has turned that drive into a spot on the National League All-Star team in his first full season.
It is that drive that pushed Harvey to chisel his body through grueling workouts in the offseason, to ready himself to bear the burden of a season heavy with expectations.
It is that drive that pushed Harvey to perfect his mechanics, to pair reliable command with what one longtime scout calls "premium stuff."
It is that drive that pushed Harvey to chase a standard much higher than mere competence, to embrace the pursuit of sheer dominance even in his dreams. "We thought he was going to be good," the scout said. "But we didn't think he was going to maybe start the All-Star Game."
He's got the right stuff
The numbers are impressive. In 19 starts for the Mets, Harvey is 7-2 with a 2.45 ERA. He leads the National League with 147 strikeouts. But the numbers don't capture how often Harvey, 24, has ventured beyond the expectations.
They fail to capture the confidence with which Harvey pursued three no-hitters and one perfect game. They miss the look on the face of Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, the American League All-Star who watched from the box as Harvey unleashed a 98-mph fastball, then countered with a slider that bent through the strike zone at 91 mph.
"He throws his pitches for strikes. He puts the ball where he wants. He pitches great," Cano said a day later. "That guy, he's awesome. I was really impressed."
The raw power behind Harvey's pitches had always left scouts in awe, though even when he debuted last season, some wondered if he'd ever possess enough command to become an ace. Those doubts have been quelled.
"The biggest thing that's helped me with the swing-and- misses is being able to locate all four pitches," Harvey said. "Throw all four pitches for a strike and also throw all four pitches for a ball. It's about the location."
Another opponent marveled about the rest of Harvey's repertoire, even wondering if his fastball might be the easiest of his pitches to hit. This is the fastball that at 96.5 mph is the hardest of any pitcher in baseball this year, the fastball that Fangraphs rates statistically as the best one in the game, the fastball that gains velocity whenever Harvey smells a strikeout.
On no-strike counts, Harvey's fastball sizzles at 95.7 mph.
On two strikes, it jumps a full tick to 96.7.
It's that extra splash of heat, and what Harvey can do with it, that pitching coach Dan Warthen believes separates him from the rest of the pack.
"He plays at 90 percent, 90 percent, 90 percent," Warthen said. "But when he's in trouble, he goes that extra 10 percent. And he knows where it's going with that extra 10 percent.
"For somebody this age? It's incredibly rare."
Only the Rangers' Yu Darvish gets more swinging strikes by percentage, and Harvey does it in the mold of a traditional power pitcher.
"And it's only going to get better," former Mets phenom Dwight Gooden said.
In some ways, Harvey has shown flashes of Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez, dogged competitors who paired swagger with stuff. This is no coincidence.
"The high cheese is what they threw," Harvey said. "When they had two strikes, here it is, you're mano y mano, let's go. Let's see if you can hit and I'm going to throw it as hard as I can. It's probably going to be high, it's probably going to be tight."
Most pitchers steer away from the upper part of the strike zone, a place where hitters turn mistakes into homers. But catcher John Buck says the rules are different with Harvey, who can simply overwhelm hitters with his ability.
It's why Harvey doesn't watch much video. Nor does he scrutinize detailed scouting reports on opposing hitters. And when he huddles with Buck before each start, the meetings tend to be short.
"They're not as detailed because he doesn't need as much detail," Buck said. "And he works better when there's not as much detail."
Mets' dream come true
The commercial ends with Durant turning the tables and dunking over Wade, which is important to know because Harvey's own dream ends with a similar twist.
It came the night before his June 23 start in Philadelphia against Rollins and the Phillies. Harvey dreamed of giving up the homer to Rollins on a fastball. But when given the chance to face him again, he buckled his knees with a curveball.
"Actually, it was kind of weird," said Harvey, who arrived at the park that morning with the image so fresh in his mind that he brought it up in his meeting with Buck.
"So first pitch we went up there, no sign, just dropped in a curveball.''
It was a called strike against leadoff man Rollins.
"You kind of saw the look in Jimmy's face," Mets captain David Wright said at the time. "And then [he] kind of looked at their bench. The guy throws upper-90s. To start the game off with a curveball just to show you can throw it for a strike is pretty impressive."
Next, he fooled Rollins on a changeup, resulting in a roller just wide of the first-base line. Harvey followed with a 97- mph fastball that Rollins barely fouled off. Ahead in the count, Harvey finished off Rollins with a curveball.
For the Phillies, it was the beginning of a nightmare afternoon.
Harvey's six shutout innings that afternoon were as real as the first-pitch curveball that caused Rollins to wince. Except this time, this was no dream.
"And at that point," Harvey said, "I'm kind of in the driver's seat."