Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

Long Island always has been an unusual case when it comes to cheering on hometown sports heroes.

We are too big to embrace them in quite the same way Friday night lights burgs in the hinterlands do, but small enough to muster plenty of provincial pride when someone earns it.

Rarely, though, do we experience an intersection of rooting interests quite like this: Ward Melville High's own Steven Matz pitching on the island on which he grew up, for his favorite childhood team, in a potentially deciding playoff game.

StoryLI's Matz ready for Game 4StoryMets stifled by Kershaw, fail to clinch NLDS

Sure, it's nice that his old high school pitching rival, Marcus Stroman, will start Game 5 of an ALDS Wednesday for the Blue Jays against the Rangers. But he is representing a team in a different country!

Matz goes Tuesday for the New York Mets in Game 4 of an NLDS against the Dodgers, a double dose of drama with limited precedent.

I could mention Roosevelt's Julius Erving leading the Nets to two ABA championships or Elmont's Vinny Testaverde quarterbacking the Jets to the AFC Championship Game and you likely could (and will) add several others to the list.

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How about Carle Place's Matt Snell and Patchogue's John Schmitt on the Super Bowl-winning Jets? Or Bethpage's Al Weis of the 1969 Mets?

But still. This is not a regular occasion.

Matz's role on his team obviously has not risen to the level of stars such as Erving and Testaverde, but this is a pivotal moment for his young career and the Mets' season, what with a long plane ride to L.A. and Zack Greinke looming should they lose Game 4.

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"We're hoping Steven goes out there and pitches like he knows how, because here's a local kid going out there and pitching for the team he grew up watching," Mets manager Terry Collins said before the game. "It's going to be a real cool scenario, especially if he pitches great. It's going to be really a fun night."

So the fact that he is from Long Island, while a nice backstory, is not nearly as important as the task at hand.

How will it play out? The good news is that expectations are modest for a 24-year-old rookie with six major-league starts, none since Sept. 24. Terry Collins sounded Monday like he would sign up for five solid innings.

"We've got to protect Steven a little bit," the manager said. "He hasn't pitched in a while. We have got to back him up with some guys. If he can get us through five or six that would be great . . . It's about getting Steven as deep into the game as he can get us."

Matz said he will have eight guests at the game, but 44,000 or so friends also will be behind him at Citi Field, hoping for the best.

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What does Matz think about playing in a game of this magnitude for the team of his youth?

"This is great," he said before Game 3. But . . . "I'm not really looking at it as a fan. Kind of taking the emotions out of it. We've got a job to do and I've got a job to do and that's win the game.''

That is all that really matters at this stage. All that stuff about his telegenic grandfather and the sandwich named after him at a local deli and the Suffolk roots are mere backdrop.

It's a colorful backdrop, for sure, and one to be celebrated. But the only celebration that counts Tuesday night would be one involving sparkling wine and a date with the Cardinals or Cubs.