David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991. Show More
Six days between starts feels like an eternity. But Steven Matz has been spending the extra time this week in pitching coach Dan Warthen's bullpen laboratory, tuning up for Friday's start against the Yankees -- and working toward solidifying his spot in the Mets' playoff rotation.
As it stands, the team has every intention of starting Matz in the Division Series, with the order still to be determined. There's no overlooking the fact, however, that Matz has only four major-league starts, and there's some polishing to do before October arrives.
Between the two months on the disabled list, and the Mets' six-man rotation, Matz's patience is being tested. He clearly got frustrated with himself during Friday's outing at Turner Field, but still battled his way to a five-inning victory.
"Just the overall command," Matz said of the struggle. "Not making the pitch I'd like to make in certain situations."
Since then, Matz has been going through a few mechanical adjustments under Warthen's tutelage, and is even expected to add another pitch to his repertoire -- either a slider or cut fastball -- at some point, if not in time for Friday.
Warthen is trying to fix a flaw in Matz's delivery that is causing his elbow to drop, resulting in stress on the joint as well as his shoulder. Warthen said it's a byproduct of trying to throw too hard -- Zack Wheeler has the same issue -- and because both pitchers have had Tommy John surgery, the less strain on the repaired elbow, the better.
"It puts an incredible amount of torque on your elbow or shoulder," Warthen said. "So we worry about that."
Other than the TJ operation a while back, Matz really hasn't suffered performancewise from the glitch, and Warthen pointed out that it's usually self-correcting. We're talking about a lefthander who throws 97 mph with a knee-buckling curveball and great changeup, so this week for Matz has been like bringing the Ferrari in when the check-engine light comes on.
"Actually, the more fatigued he gets into the game, the better he gets," Warthen said. "But when it's early, and he's got all this adrenaline, the arm slides underneath him and pushes the baseball uphill. That becomes very dangerous."
The Mets are concerned that Matz leaves too many pitches high in the strike zone, a risky place for any pitcher to live and certainly not unique to a 24-year-old rookie. But the level of difficulty for Matz has increased this season because of the extended rehab for a partially torn lat muscle.
Since his Sept. 6 return, Matz has allowed 10 hits and three runs in 101/3 innings, walking four with eight strikeouts in two starts. He's been competitive. It's just that Matz is trying to regain the dominance he showed before the injury. And he's not quite there yet.
"Because of the competitor he is, and how tough he is on himself, the layoff has probably been harder for him," Warthen said.
"He's worked his whole life to be here, so I think he may have pushed himself a little bit harder. And by doing so, maybe got some of the delivery issues."
Friday will be Matz's first start at Citi Field since his stellar debut July 28, when he allowed two runs in 72/3 innings and struck out six in a 7-2 win over the Reds. That was an emotional homecoming for Matz, a former Ward Melville star, but the atmosphere in the Subway Series opener will be unlike anything he's experienced.
"I can't wait," Matz said.
As the Mets use September to evaluate candidates for the playoff roster, Matz has the potential to be one of their most valuable assets. He has no innings restrictions, and they believe he's got the perfect mental makeup for the spotlight. Matz has excelled in title games at every level, including a near no-hitter in last year's Eastern League championship.
To Matz, those were the biggest games of his young life, just as these will be now. Only with three-deck stadiums, more noise and brighter lights. With the extra work he's been putting in lately, Matz plans to be ready.