David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
By the time Matt Harvey arrives early Sunday morning for a 1 p.m. start against the Pirates, his extensive preparation has reached the final stages. It's already been a long four days since the highlight of his young career, when Harvey limited the White Sox to one hit over nine innings and struck out 12. Now he has only two things left to do.
Eat breakfast, then one last 10:30 meeting with catcher John Buck and pitching coach Dan Warthen. By then, all three already have watched video of the Pirates facing a similar pitcher to Harvey -- maybe Josh Johnson from last season, or a mash-up that combines a 95-fastball from one pitcher, a nasty slider from another and a curve from a third.
Before the White Sox masterpiece, they studied how Chicago's hitters reacted to Justin Verlander, dissecting each at-bat, breaking down every swing. It wasn't as much about the numbers as visual tendencies, which in turn exposed weaknesses that could be exploited, a code to each hitter that could be cracked.
"His stuff is great, his head is great," Warthen said of the 24-year-old. "But he understands a guy's swing, the way he stands in the box, the way the bat sits in the guy's hands. He has those kind of instincts that you don't see in 35-year-olds at times."
And when Harvey, only 17 starts into his major-league career, has trouble zeroing in on that soft spot, he turns to Buck and Warthen as a sounding board for strategy in the last few hours before he takes the mound.
"He's done his homework the night before," Warthen said, "and then he'll come in and say something like, 'The one I didn't feel good about was [Conor] Gillaspie. I just can't figure out that swing. I don't know where it's going. What do you guys think we should do here?' So we talk it over."
In the end, Gillaspie wasn't much of an issue that night. Harvey just attacked him relentlessly with four-seam fastballs. He whiffed him on four pitches in his first at-bat with Gillaspie swinging through a 97-mph fastball. The next time up took six pitches, as Harvey mixed in an 88-mph changeup before rifling four straight fastballs to freeze him with another 97.
Finally, in the eighth inning, Gillaspie just hacked at the first pitch, a dialed-down 94, and flied out to left. Problem solved.
"He's not just trying to overpower hitters," manager Terry Collins said. "There's times when he wants to get some easy out so he pitches to contact, like I'm going to throw a ball on the outer half of the plate and see if I can get a fly ball to centerfield, and that's helping him."
It's not all about velocity with Harvey, who has a five-pitch arsenal to choose from, and pure heat alone is not going to accomplish what he's done to this point. The Pirates have yet to see Harvey, but Bucs manager Clint Hurdle doesn't necessarily consider that to be a big advantage for the Mets' ace. Nor does he need to rely on the element of surprise.
There's no secret to Harvey's success. By now, everyone knows what he does. The hard part remains hitting him - at any speed.
"I think we're living in a societal state of the game where we're really gun-conscious," Hurdle said, "and when guys throw 97, 98, there's an awareness, an alert button goes off. I also know at this level, it doesn't matter if it's 100 -- if it's straight, it's going to get nailed.
"I've had some guys that have thrown really hard in the past and they don't have any late life, there's no movement at the end. It gets barreled up and they spend a lot of time backing up bases. This kid has got some late life to everything he's got, and some movement."
In talking about velocity, Hurdle brought up an anecdote about one of his former players, Vinny Castilla, who said, in all seriousness, that a fastball has to be "more than three digits." While such a pitch would have to be rocket-propelled, Hurdle joked that Harvey hadn't quite hit that on the radar gun yet.
"He doesn't have four digits," Hurdle deadpanned. "So there's room for improvement."
Aside from Tuesday night's nosebleed, Harvey hasn't looked human lately, and that includes his robotic behavior between starts as well. On Wednesday, Harvey cited his "24-hour rule," which mandates that he flush any emotions tied to his most recent outing from his memory banks within that time span.
"I've been like that since I was in high school," Harvey said. "I'm used to it. The good one's nice the next day. The bad one sucks the next day. But the day after that, it's forgotten about."
Sounds easy, but it's not. With so much down time for a starting pitcher, the psychological battle that goes on during those off days is legitimate. Harvey's ability to focus on the preparation -- and the present tense -- is not to be overlooked when analyzing his early dominance. Those who struggle with such things have an even greater appreciation of it.
"The guy's pitching better than anybody in baseball, and you wouldn't really know it," said Dillon Gee, who has developed a friendship with Harvey and lockers next to him. "For real, I think to him, it's normal. He expected this. Obviously, we expected him to do great things. But he's on quite a roll, and he just literally thinks he's just doing his job."
That type of mind-set is a general manager's dream, and adds another layer to Harvey's developing aura. The physical ability is one thing, but the mental component, as Gee put it, is "why he's going to be so good for so long."
Sandy Alderson agrees.
"As times goes on, we realize that it needs to be considered even more heavily, because it makes a huge difference," the GM said. "I think one of the keys to a successful professional career -- one that separates professional players from the rest of us -- is their ability to move on, even from success. That's hard to do."
100 - Career saves for Craig Kimbrel, who blew his first two attempts this week. Also became second youngest to reach that mark, behind Francisco Rodriguez, whose career arc reinforced how impossible it will be for anyone to catch Mariano Rivera.
10 - Strikeouts for Scott Kazmir, who earned his first double-digit K total since 2009 in his final game for the Rays. Kazmir, the former Met prospect, has found his velocity again, with a fastball that averaged 93 and maxed out at 96. Kid K, the sequel?
108.82 - ERA of Philip Humber, who was demoted to the Astros bullpen after beginning this season 0-7 in seven starts. A year ago, with the White Sox, Humber pitched only the 21st perfect game in MLB history.
103 - Number of times two reigning Cy Young winners have faced each other, the latest coming Thursday night when R.A. Dickey opposed David Price. Neither got a decision, unlike the last Cy Young duel, when Tom Glavine beat Roger Clemens in 1999.
100 - Batters faced by Astros reliever Wesley Wight, whose illegal removal after a few warmup pitches ignited a second umpiring controversy in three days. Not only did the umpires whiff on Rule 3.05b, Bo Porter didn’t know it, either. Congrats, Mike Scioscia, you go to the head of the class.