David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
PHILADELPHIA - As much as the Mets continue to skirt the question regarding their Game 4 starter for the Division Series, there's only one reason it shouldn't be Steven Matz.
And if he does pitch Thursday, as the Mets believe he will, that number drops to zero. Because a healthy Matz would be impossible to keep out of the playoff rotation, despite Bartolo Colon's late roll through the NL East's duckpins before Tuesday night's 4-3 loss to the Phillies.
There is, of course, the not-so-tiny matter of Matz's supposed sleep-induced back stiffness, a condition worrisome enough to convince the Mets to delay his scheduled start Wednesday night by another 24 hours.
"Slept on the wrong side, slept on the sofa, I don't know what happened,'' Sandy Alderson said. "Barcalounger? But he seems better, so we'll see how he is. We don't think it's anything serious.''
Credit Alderson for adding the Barcalounger -- a brand of easy chair, for those under 40 -- to the rogues' list of pitchers' enemies, such as electric hedge clippers and Jack Russell terriers (Google it). By all accounts, however, Matz may have gotten off easily. He didn't sound too concerned and neither did the Mets, despite the cloak-and-dagger routine before Tuesday night's game.
First, Terry Collins spoke cryptically about plans for a Game 4 starter, suggesting these next few days would be the deciding factor because of "some things that may occur.'' He refused to elaborate, but Collins has a lousy poker face. Though he didn't blurt it out, the clues eventually leaked.
"Guys come with sore arms, sore legs, sore backs,'' Collins said, crumbling by the minute. "Anything can happen. I'd like the focus to be on getting ready . Not, oh boy, look at this, another problem.''
What Collins basically did was punt to Alderson, who later held his own media briefing in the clubhouse hallway. And it began with the GM asking, "Did Terry say anything about Matz?''
That was not a typical opening line from Alderson, but he eventually softened, admitting that yes, Matz was bothered by some "discomfort,'' the result of a "sleeping issue.'' Game 1 of the NLDS is 10 days away, so at this stage, no injury is minor, particularly for a starting pitcher.
But the Mets have the luxury of time here, despite the push for home-field advantage, and their best playoff roster needs Matz in the rotation. Alderson made it sound as if they are open to using him out of the bullpen, but he has zero experience in that role. Unlike Jonathon Niese, who will audition for a relief spot, Matz won't get the opportunity for a dry run.
"He's such a unique guy,'' Collins said. "I don't see a scenario where we could get him work out of the bullpen, to see if he can even get warm.''
That seems like a foolish exercise. Matz already has come back from a complicated Tommy John rehab and missed nearly two months this season with a partially torn lat muscle. Better to lock him in for the Game 4 start -- health willing -- and have Colon, a more versatile option, to troubleshoot.
For entertainment value, it's tough to beat Colon. But he's 12-3 with a 2.93 ERA against tomato cans (Phillies, Braves, Marlins) and 2-10, 5.73 vs. everyone else.
Probably the biggest advantage for Colon is his postseason experience (3.70 ERA in 10 starts) but Alderson isn't hung up on that. He'll take the kids throwing gas over the wily 42-year-old, and Matz is a member of that precocious brat pack.
"Would you like to have playoff experience?'' he said. "Sure, that would be preference. But would you rather have four horses that throw 95-96-98? That'd be nice, too. Nothing's ever perfect. And I think we have a lot of confidence in our young guys.''
As for the Matz conundrum, hopefully it's nothing a good night's sleep can't cure.