HOUSTON — Hanging on the wall near the visitors’ clubhouse here, as part of an array of other baseball-themed art, the painting portrayed what could have been the zenith of Matt Harvey’s once-brilliant career. Instead, it was merely a reminder of the last time he talked himself into a task that proved too tall.
The vivid colors and bold lines depicted the Royals, their faces bright, their arms outstretched, celebrating at Citi Field. They had just rallied to win Game 5 of the 2015 World Series, all after a fading Harvey persuaded Terry Collins to stick with him in the ninth.
Now, as he stood just a few feet from the painting Saturday afternoon, a diminished Harvey defied all objective thought as he looked to spin one of the worst starts of his career as a positive step forward.
“No, I don’t feel like I’m far away at all,” Harvey said after a 12-8 loss to the Astros in Game 1 of a doubleheader that made him look light years away from his dominance most of the night in World Series Game 5.
Harvey pushed for this comeback. In the face of middling results in a brief minor-league rehab and radar gun readings that revealed that his fastball was still in hiding, he persisted. Returning to the mound after a stress injury in his shoulder, he said, took precedence over questions about his velocity.
But he was finished after two innings, the shortest start of his career, after being tagged for seven runs and eight hits. He looked both ordinary and dispensable in his first action since shoulder trouble sent him to the disabled list in June.
“When you haven’t pitched in four months, it’s not going to happen overnight,” Terry Collins said, explaining away a day in which Harvey plunked a batter and threw a pair of wild pitches, one of which wound up behind the Astros’ Cameron Maybin.
Looking noticeably slimmer and with a fastball that never topped 94 mph, Harvey was under duress for the entirety of his 70-pitch outing.
The Astros hammered him for four runs in the first inning, when he surrendered run-scoring hits to Maybin, Jose Altuve and Marwin Gonzalez.
The Astros added three runs in the second, with the biggest blow coming on George Springer’s two-run shot. Harvey allowed another run when he missed so badly with a breaking pitch that he threw behind Maybin, allowing Altuve to score.
After the game, Harvey said he re-watched almost every pitch and spotted a mechanical flaw. He had used his legs to drive toward the plate rather than trusting gravity to do the job. In his mind, it was a bad habit from last season, when thoracic outlet syndrome forced him to pitch with limited feeling in his right hand.
“That’s the positive I can take out of that, other than being healthy and being ready for my next start,” Harvey said of spotting the flaw.
He insisted that competence not only is within his grasp but is close. “I just need that one time to click,” he said. “And once it does, it’ll be exciting.”
Just as he did on the night of that painting, he accepted a challenge, one that may prove too big for his reach. “I’m fully confident that within the next start, the start after that, or whatever it is, by the end of this season, I’ll be comfortable on the mound and throwing to hitters,” he said. “There’s not one doubt in my mind that with health, mechanics will come and so will success.”
Matt Harvey’s return
2 IP, 8 H, 7 ER, 3 SO, 0 BB, 1 HR