Mets phenom Matt Harvey has come to personify the hopes of a franchise striving to reverse its fortunes. But now the 24-year-old sensation faces Tommy John surgery after doctors discovered a partial tear of a ligament in his pitching elbow yesterday.
In his first full season in the big leagues, Harvey has established himself as one of the game's brightest rising stars. His brilliance earned him the honor of starting the All-Star Game at Citi Field, and his dominance vaulted his name into conversations about the NL Cy Young Award.
The Mets were counting on the budding ace to be at the center of their plan to compete in 2014. But with Harvey's immediate future in doubt -- he's out for the rest of the season and perhaps more -- those bright ambitions have dimmed.
"It was tough,'' said Harvey, who was blindsided because he felt no obvious pain in his elbow. "Obviously, it was the last thing I was kind of expecting when I went in this morning.''
The righthander hopes to avoid surgery to repair his partially torn ulnar collateral ligament, though a procedure appears inevitable. Surgery brings with it a recovery time of one year, which would wipe out his 2014 season and perhaps the Mets' hopes of finishing with a winning record for the first time since 2008.
"I'm going to do everything I can so I don't have to get surgery, whether it's strengthening areas in my shoulder and elbow and stretching, a lot of stretching, making sure I stay out of the doctor's office,'' said Harvey, who is 9-5 with a 2.27 ERA in 26 starts.
But even if Harvey beats the odds and pitches effectively without surgery, he might be only postponing a trip to the operating table. General manager Sandy Alderson called Harvey's injury "progressive,'' meaning it could worsen over time.
"There will always be the open question, given a partial tear, how long that ligament will hold up,'' Alderson said.
Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright suffered a torn UCL in 2004 and pitched effectively for seven years, though he finally needed surgery in 2011. Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg opted for immediate surgery when he tore the same elbow ligament in 2010. The procedure cost him almost all of 2011.
Like Strasburg, Harvey suffered a major injury despite innings limitations and pitch-count limits put in place to protect his talented arm. Alderson said for the first time that his innings would have been in the range of 200 to 205, with the flexibility to push it as high as 215. He also dismissed the notion that the injury stemmed from overuse.
Harvey already had entered uncharted territory, sitting at a career-high 1781/3 innings, eight more than he had in all of 2012. His performance offered no hint of injury. Harvey's average fastball of 95.8 mph ranked first among all qualifying starting pitchers. He led the NL with 191 strikeouts and ranked second in WHIP (0.931) and ERA.
But after he allowed two runs and a career-high 13 hits in 62/3 innings against the Tigers on Saturday, there were signs of trouble.
"It looked like something was wrong,'' said manager Terry Collins, who didn't know about the severity of Harvey's forearm issues until he mentioned it Sunday.
After the Tigers game, Harvey said he was feeling the fatigue of the long season, though he also informed the training staff of tightness in his forearm. He had pitched through the condition for a significant part of the season, though Harvey said it was "more achy than normal'' after his start against the Tigers.
Alderson said "forearm tenderness'' is what ultimately prompted Harvey to visit the Hospital for Special Surgery, where he expected a much less serious diagnosis of inflammation. Never had he felt a snap, or pop, or tingling -- the telltale signs of a serious elbow injury.
"That's why it was a shock to me,'' Harvey said.
The same could be said for the rest of baseball.
In the Mets' clubhouse, Harvey's stunned teammates skimmed their smartphones for news updates as the severity of the injury became more clear. Catcher John Buck said many Mets found out about the injury during pregame stretch.
Even in the Phillies' clubhouse, televisions were tuned to updates.
"It put everybody down,'' rookie catcher Travis d'Arnaud said. "He's such a great guy. You heard the news and everyone was just speechless . . . It's terrible news, man. I'll be praying for him every day. I'm just hoping for the best.''
Fellow phenom Zack Wheeler called the injury "terrible, terrible news.''
"It's horrible,'' Wheeler said. "No pitcher ever wants to go through that. No other pitcher ever wants to hear about that, especially to a good guy like Matt, who has had a tremendous year.''