JUPITER, Fla. — The first step for Matt Harvey when he showed up for spring training was to immediately shed his “Dark Knight” persona, firmly refusing to compare himself to any previous versions of the past, All-Star or otherwise.
But the final step of this six-week transformation — call it Harvey 2.0 if you must — took place Tuesday at Roger Dean Stadium, where the Cardinals used a regular-season lineup for his definitive Grapefruit League start. Harvey allowed five hits and one run in 5 1⁄3 innings, with five strikeouts and two walks, in the Mets’ 8-7 victory, powering through the 90-pitch stint with poise on a humid, 85-degree afternoon.
“I think he’s where he needs to be,” Mickey Callaway said.
So that begs the question: Just where will Harvey be in the rotation? With only a brief tuneup remaining, the fact that Harvey just faced the Cardinals — the Mets’ opponent for the opening series (March 29-April 1) at Citi Field — certainly means he won’t be used against them a little more than a week later.
St. Louis made sure to pitch Adam Wainwright in a minor- league game Tuesday to avoid giving the Mets a refresher course on him, but Callaway has yet to announce the rest of the rotation after Noah Syndergaard goes Opening Day and Jacob deGrom follows. Presumably, Steven Matz would finish the Cardinals’ series, with Harvey facing the Phillies on April 2 and Zack Wheeler next up.
When asked about avoiding St. Louis, Harvey said, “I’d assume that.” But Callaway chose to volley with reporters on the subject, saying the Mets “could” still start Harvey for the Cardinals’ series.
But will they?
“We could,” Callaway said, smiling. “Maybe.”
Whatever. The primary focus Tuesday was on Harvey polishing his spot in what is shaping up as a rebirth of sorts for the Fab 5 rotation. A day earlier, Steven Matz took on the Astros at full strength and struck out nine in six innings, a statement performance against the world champs. Just as Matz needed the past month to stabilize his wobbly confidence, Harvey was on a mission to rediscover what had been lost. It’s safe to say he found much of that Tuesday, when the only run off him came on Paul DeJong’s leadoff homer in the fifth.
Harvey’s fastball peaked at 95 mph, hovering in the 91-94 range, but looked even quicker when complemented with a hard-bending slider (86-88) and effective changeup (80-82). With plenty of scouts in attendance, the overall impressions were good, especially with “the angle on his pitches” and composure to wriggle free of a few tight spots.
“Being able to get up to 90 pitches and still feel good, I feel ready to go,” Harvey said. “During the last couple of outings, I put everything together — the fastball, slider, changeup. I still felt comfortable throwing everything.”
Harvey struck out three of the first four Cardinals, getting Dexter Fowler and Tommy Pham to swing through sliders before freezing Marcell Ozuna with a 94-mph fastball. He didn’t surrender a hit until there were two outs in the third inning, when Fowler ripped a 95-mph heater to left-center for a triple. Those stickier situations, however, turned out to be perfect dress rehearsals for the regular season. Harvey stranded Fowler by getting Pham on a bouncer to short, and with two on in the fourth, Yadier Molina grounded into a 5-4-3 double play.
“That’s the biggest thing, really not letting the game speed up on you,” Harvey said. “If you can settle in, and limit the damage, you can go deeper into games.”
Callaway didn’t have a problem pushing the throttle on Harvey, either. After pumping up to 95 mph to strike out Pham and end the fifth, Harvey already was at 83 pitches, but the manager sent him back for the sixth. He needed six more — the first four were sliders — before getting Matt Carpenter on a flyout to center that completed his day.
A day that showed Harvey was prepared to join the rest of the Fab 5, should it break that way to begin the season.
“The main goal is to win games,” Harvey said. “But we’re all amped up and ready to go.”