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What veteran catcher John Buck brings to the table
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- John Buck recognized the signs as early as the first inning. Matt Harvey's fastball tailed inside. His slider backed up over the plate. In Buck's estimation, Harvey was overthrowing because a.) his stuff felt extraordinarily good and he wanted to dominate the hitters or b.) his stuff felt underwhelming and he hoped to compensate by powering through.
Either way, Buck kept his mouth shut, then spent the next four innings on Sunday afternoon observing how the young pitcher handled himself. For the veteran catcher, Harvey's struggles proved educational.
"Just to see some struggles, see how long they would last, then to see him make the adjustment," Buck said. "It was more or less what I was looking for, and he did it."
That veteran savvy is part of the reason that Buck will open the season as the Mets' starting catcher.
Even though the Mets sent prospect Travis d'Arnaud down to the minor leagues, general manager Sandy Alderson made it clear through both actions and words that the organization believes the 24-year-old is ready to play in the majors. However, with the veteran in the Buck in the fold, the Mets can keep d'Arnaud in the minors to delay arbitration and free agency.
Until d'Arnaud returns, Buck will be in charge of handling the pitching staff, which is why he took advantage of the teaching moment that presented itself on Sunday afternoon. After the game, Buck admitted that under regular circumstances, he would have said something sooner to Harvey.
However, since it was the first time he worked with the Mets righthander, observing how he handled the situation took a higher priority than cruising through another spring training outing.
"The everyday fan might not like that he got touched up a little bit," Buck said of Harvey, who allowed three runs on five hits in five innings.
It turns out the root of Harvey's problems stemmed from how well he felt before the game in the bullpen, when he could sense immediately that "the ball felt like it was jumping out of my hand." In the first, he struck out Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter and Miguel Cabrera, though the Tigers would eventually make him pay for being too amped up.
Buck bit his tongue. Since it was his first time catching him in a game, Buck said he didn't want to begin offering advice too early and risk getting tuned out. Said Buck: "When I say something, I want it to be meaningful."
But in the dugout, following the fourth, Buck finally decided it was time. He pulled Harvey aside to deliver a simple message: "Back off the range a little bit and trust that what you're throwing is right. Don't focus so much on forcing it. Just let it happen."
Buck continued: "Think about location or throwing an offspeed pitch early in the count. I'm banking on them not hitting it out. Throw it there for them to hit it out and see what happens. I'll take full responsibility."
The result? Harvey induced a grounder, struck out a batter, then forced a ground ball double play. The inning was quick and efficient and as Harvey said later, perhaps the most positive aspect of an otherwise rough outing.
"Luckily," the veteran catcher said. "It worked."