David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Forget this was the Grapefruit League, Nick Castellanos was batting cleanup for the Tigers instead of Miguel Cabrera and we still have a month left of spring training.
Friday was a good day for the Mets. A really, really good day. And how many times in the past seven years or so have you said that? Not anywhere close to enough.
Matt Harvey pitched in the next-best thing to a major-league game after an 18-month rehab for Tommy John surgery and was all the Mets could have hoped for. Harvey exceeded those expectations simply by being Matt Harvey again. "Just like he left off," David Wright said. "It reminded me of the last time he was on the mound."
Everyone had the 2013 Harvey stored away in their memory banks, tucked behind Jacob deGrom's shiny new Rookie of the Year trophy and the useless clutter of Troy Tulowitzki trade rumors. We were anxious to take Harvey out, dust him off and see if he still worked.
Because in the Mets' world, too often that leads to disappointment. For a while now, it has seemed as if they couldn't have nice things. They'd rush back Wright or Jose Reyes or Johan Santana, and the season would wind up broken on the floor, another mess to clean up.
That changed with Harvey. This time the Mets realized they had the next Tom Seaver, a Dwight Gooden for the new millennium. As crushing as it was to lose him at the height of his powers, coming off that All-Star start that put a forgotten Citi Field on the baseball map again, the Mets had to be patient, even if it meant putting the brakes on Harvey for his own good.
Friday at Tradition Field, that plan finally came together, a blueprint that began with the first scalpel stroke from orthopedist James Andrews and progressed to the opening 96-mph fastball Harvey gunned past leadoff man Anthony Gose.
Turns out that was only a warning shot. Reading directly from a scout's radar gun behind the backstop, we saw Harvey's fastball sitting at 96 to 98. In the second inning, by this gun's measure, he hit 99 mph three times.
But this wasn't only about velocity, of course. Harvey's command was laser-precise -- on March 6! -- and the final pitch, a 3-and-2 curveball, locked up Bryan Holaday for a strikeout to end his perfect two innings.
"Things felt so good," he said, "the fact that I did have surgery is completely out of my mind."
That statement probably was the most encouraging part of Harvey's Grapefruit League debut. With the surgery so common these days, we're conditioned to believe that it's as easy to overcome as a sprained ankle. Don't be fooled. Screwing ligaments into bones is traumatic, and there are no guarantees, especially for a 25-year-old who will continue to push the physical limits of that repaired elbow, every five days, for up to eight months a year.
There is a huge mental component to getting past that, and Harvey -- in addition to his immense talent -- possesses the necessary edge. We had an idea of what we would see when he took the mound Friday because he's shown us that before. But everybody couldn't wait to see it again, which made Harvey's outing the biggest Mets-related event since, well, the last time he pitched.
"I honestly believe the hype is well-warranted," pitching coach Dan Warthen said. "He's a big factor in that clubhouse, he's a big factor in New York, he's a big factor everywhere he goes. I think he lived up to that hype. Most of the time it doesn't happen that way, but today it certainly did."
Harvey did. One hundred percent.