WASHINGTON - What Matt Harvey missed the most could not be replicated anywhere else but a pitcher's mound.

For all of his exploits off the field -- author, world traveler, unabashed admirer of New York's nightlife -- none of it proved to be a worthy surrogate.

He longed for competition.

"It's just playing," the Mets righthander said during a quiet moment in spring training. "Being able to play. As an athlete, your whole life is about competing. It's always there. It's not something where you just wake up and say 'oh, I'm going to compete today.' It's with us all the time."

Now, after 593 days, the moment has come. For the first time since an elbow injury sent him toward Tommy John surgery, Harvey has a game to pitch. The Mets have their ace back.

Both are whole again. "We're just glad that Matt's back because again I think that's why we were able to say what we did at the end of last year," manager Terry Collins said. "That we think we're going to compete when you've got a No. 1 starter."

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Harvey's return comes on an appropriate stage: in Washington, facing the team projected by many to win the World Series, head-to-head against their own supernova, Stephen Strasburg. "It's always fun to match up against somebody like that," said Harvey, whose legend began in 2013 during one epic duel with Strasburg.

On April 19, in a matchup at Citi Field, Harvey gave up just one run and four hits in seven innings. He pitched the Mets to a 7-1 victory. It was his fourth in a row. That night, the crowd broke into a memorable chant: "Harvey's better!"

Now, Harvey is back. As is the promise of a rematch with Strasburg and others.

As he threw his bullpen before Wednesday's game, Harvey said Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez stopped his bullpen to express just how much he was looking forward to the matchup. "It's a huge thing for everybody in baseball," Collins said. "This is one of the great, great players in the game and you love to watch him."

The Mets will be cautious with Harvey. Though he has a ceiling of 100 pitches, he likely will be pulled around the 90-pitch mark. The weather could be an added complication. Forecasts call for temperatures in the mid-50s. Then, there's nerves. But on the eve of his return, Harvey insisted those won't be an issue, either.

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"Because of the work that's been done in spring training, the buildup that we've had, I don't really imagine as of now that anything is going to be too much different," Harvey said. "You never know until you get out there."