David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
ATLANTA - Before Thursday night's game, the visitors' clubhouse at Turner Field offered a glimpse into the future, a snapshot of what the room should look like in 2016.
Gathered around the big-screen TV was the Mets' not-too-distant rotation. Zack Wheeler, on Tommy John rehab, shared a couch with Noah Syndergaard. Jacob deGrom was seated in the middle, with Steven Matz to his right, and the foursome seemed as comfortable as old high school buddies.
But the Mets have a long way to go -- and plenty to accomplish -- before we see that group together again. Based on the developments of the past week, maybe Matt Harvey will be a part of that '16 rotation. Then again, maybe not.
In the meantime, the Mets' decision-makers are trying to draft a blueprint for the rotation that will get them to the end of the regular season -- and, they hope, deep into October.
As it turns out, Harvey isn't the only moving piece, just the one hogging the back pages. And there remains concern about the other starters, except for Matz and Bartolo Colon, who extended his scoreless streak to 31 innings in Thursday night's rain-delayed game before the Braves finally broke through in the seventh.
"We do have some guys that we need to watch,'' Terry Collins said, "and guys that are getting a little tired.''
With Harvey not expected to start until the Subway Series (Sept. 18-20), the Mets, already in a six-man rotation, are looking at spots to rest deGrom and Jonathon Niese.
Remember, they are a ways from clinching. Their magic number was 17. That makes the next 3½ weeks a tricky line to walk. But in the Mets' view, it's unavoidable. Even with the limits, they need to squeeze whatever they can from Harvey. As for deGrom, the Mets believe he has to recharge for the stretch, as he is likely to be their Game 1 starter for a looming Division Series matchup with the Dodgers.
"Right now, we're focused on the short term,'' Sandy Alderson said. "We have the bigger picture in mind, but we have to get there first.''
But in a sense, that's what the Mets seem to be doing. After the sweep in D.C., they should be able to skip Harvey in that season-ending series against the Nationals, increasing the chance he'll get at least one playoff start. For deGrom, however, it's about "saving bullets,'' according to Collins, who believes the ace has been a little off lately.
"You still see the stuff,'' Collins said. "It's just the location that's missing, and that's what makes him special.''
Colon (1762/3) and deGrom (176) lead the staff in innings pitched. Harvey stands at 1712/3 and Niese at 161. That leaves Syndergaard, who already has been skipped once, and Matz as the liveliest arms in the rotation.
For Matz, it came at a cost. He missed nearly two months with a partially torn lat muscle and didn't return until last Sunday in Miami, when he allowed two runs in 51/3 innings. Matz left early because of a finger blister, which has healed, and he's in good shape for Friday night's start against the Braves and the rest of this season.
"I'm on no limit now,'' Matz said. "There's no restrictions, so I can just kind of fit in where they need me.''
The Mets are still sorting all that out. But it's interesting to see how the script has flipped for this rotation, now as preoccupied with the workload as winning the NL East. The Mets don't anticipate one interfering with the other. But with so many routines interrupted and schedules juggled, it's uncharted territory.
"We're trying to make sure we head into that last 10 days and you're where you want to be, your guys are fresh, and you're going to run them out there as you need to,'' Collins said. "But it's hard to do right now.''