In what seemed like a lifetime ago, Steven Matz let the doubt creep in through the sling that held his pitching arm in 2010.
He had dedicated his life to this sport. He rooted for the Mets growing up and was enthralled when Endy Chavez made his iconic over-the-wall catch in 2006. Even better, he held the faint promise that someday he'd make a few iconic moments of his own. Someday he would walk onto the field at Citi Field surrounded by the throngs of family and friends who had made the drive from his hometown in Stony Brook and live a dream that began on the mound at Ward Melville High School.
That sling -- a necessity after he underwent Tommy John surgery -- said otherwise: Recovery takes at least a year, and many scouts still believe that a surgically repaired UCL is a liability. It would be two years before he appeared in a professional game.
"It seemed pretty far off, that's for sure," said Matz, 24, a day before his scheduled major-league debut. "Obviously, you're in it to make it to the big leagues, so it didn't seem completely out of the question, but it seemed really far away."
It took him to some pretty far-off places, too -- first to Tennessee, where he played rookie ball, and then to Georgia, Florida, Binghamton, Las Vegas and now, finally, to the place where his love for baseball first began: Flushing.
If all goes according to plan, Matz, one of the wunderkinds drafted during the Omar Minaya era, will face Reds rookie Josh Smith on Sunday. He will step onto the field, look up at the stands and . . .
"There are going to be a lot of people here for sure," said Matz, who drove in from Stony Brook on Saturday. "I don't know how many people. It's going to be a lot. I'm happy it's at home. My parents are really excited, my family is really excited. I have a pretty big family."
Doubts about Matz's ability have disappeared with those other, older doubts.
"He's got the gift [of a] power arm," manager Terry Collins said. "He's lefthanded, he throws strikes . . . and he doesn't throw a lot of pitches. He pounds the strike zone, makes you swing at pitches . . . He trusts his stuff . . . This is going to be a big day for him."
Even better: Matz has plenty of experience with a six-man rotation. He was part of one last year, he said.
He follows four other young guys who came before him -- Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Jacob deGrom, whom he lists as one of his closest friends, and Noah Syndergaard. He watched their debuts, he said, and, like Syndergaard, he said he felt numb when he found out it was his turn. "It feels great," Matz said. "It really is a dream come true. That's all I can say. It's really exciting. I'm just going to soak it up today and take it all in."
Matz was 7-4 with a 2.19 ERA with Triple-A Las Vegas this season. He worked extensively with 51s pitching coach Frank Viola to fine-tune his repertoire, and his performance was even more notable because -- as Collins, Syndergaard and Matz himself said -- the Pacific League Coast isn't exactly easy on pitchers.
"He's got great confidence right now, and he should," Collins said. "To do what he did in a hitter's league . . . he should be able to have success here."
There will be tough nights, Collins acknowledged. Major-league starts can be adrenaline-fueled crapshoots, and doing it on your home field, for your favorite team, in front of a couple dozen family members, could send it into hyperdrive. But . . .
"I've never had this experience before where you just keep bringing up all these legit prospects to the big leagues," Collins said. "They've got a chance to be some sort of dynamic rotation."
Banish the doubts. Imagine the possibilities. Steven Matz did.