WASHINGTON - Matt Harvey didn't come close to doing what the Mets wanted him to do in Tuesday night's return to the mound. There was no restoration of the Dark Knight persona, no big dog swagger. Just another guy firing fastball after fastball, hoping for the best.

But Harvey did accomplish something. With the clunker, he changed the conversation. The Mets are no longer as consumed by the idea of when Harvey will pitch in September, or possibly the playoffs.

Now they're more worried about how Harvey will pitch.

DatabaseMatt Harvey's career starts

After this performance, when Harvey resorted to throwing 54 fastballs out of 74 pitches, the Mets are not sure what to think. The suspicion is that Harvey wasn't completely over the media firestorm of the previous three days, the one ignited by his agent, Scott Boras, on Friday.

And in attempting to prove everyone wrong, Harvey just couldn't harness that emotion -- not yet. Instead, those angry thoughts may still have been pinballing around in his head, messing with his command, and reducing him to a one-trick pitcher who was definitely not the Matt Harvey we're used to seeing.

"I think he was out there trying to show everybody who he is and I think he overthrew," Terry Collins said. "He missed a lot of spots because he was trying too hard. It's human nature.

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"I was very proud of him, to go out there with the monkey on his back the way it was. And to carry that load out there, it's tough to pitch with that."

More like King Kong. Harvey had one of the worst nights of his career, and the ace's timing, like that of his agent, Scott Boras -- who ignited this whole innings-limit brouhaha Friday -- was terrible. He matched a career high by allowing seven earned runs, and was done after 5 1/3 innings.

If the Mets weren't sure about an exact September blueprint for Harvey before the Nats chased him off the field, it certainly seems like there's a lot less pressure to use him now. Both Collins and David Wright described Harvey as angry going into the start. But afterward, standing at his locker, Harvey stayed on script, crediting his teammates for an inspiring 8-7 comeback win. When asked about his next start, Harvey toed the company line.

"I'm ready whenever they decide," Harvey said. "I have a couple mechanical things to work on, but whenever they decide to throw me back out there, I'm going to be ready."

It's going to be a while. Now that the Mets have a six-game lead in the NL East, the Harvey debate feels a lot less important. They'll be fine. As for Harvey, that remains to be seen. With his Dark Knight reputation in tatters from the PR shredding of the previous three days, Harvey badly needed to be a hero -- and he couldn't do it. The Nats harassed him for five hits and three runs in just the first two innings.

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But watching Harvey breeze through the third, fourth and fifth made us again question the validity of any limitations based solely on innings, as Boras' 180 hard cap has tried to brainwash the masses.

Harvey spent the night disproving that very notion. How could anyone believe his efficient middle innings should be weighed the same as the messy first two?

But don't expect Harvey to come off that number, and he's now bumping up against it at 171 2/3 innings for the season. To the Mets, however, it's becoming less relevant. They can't be held hostage by whatever Harvey chooses to do over the next four weeks -- and possibly into October.

After Harvey imploded in that sixth inning, the Mets just kept plowing ahead, barely noticing, passing him by like roadkill. If Harvey is physically able to be a productive member of their rotation, great. If not, he can enjoy the ride. The Mets still have work to do, and plenty of other players eager to do it.

"This is not about one guy," Collins said before the game. "It's about the team. If Matt doesn't pitch again, we've got to pick up the pieces."

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Tuesday night's gut-check win showed the Mets are over this Harvey thing. And he's not.