WASHINGTON - Only those with excessive audacity would dare to speak of the impossible. So it only followed that Matt Harvey would boast about bending time to suit his own will.
He had spent much of his 593-day exile this way, his hubris never dimming even as his body needed to heal. He would return one day. And when he did, he would make the calendar jump straight from 2013 to 2015. It would be as if 2014 never happened, his absence blotted from the record.
"I don't know if I could draw it up any better," Harvey said Thursday, when he accomplished exactly what he'd promised.
Over six shutout innings in the Mets' 6-3 victory over the Nationals, he left hardly a trace that this was his first big-league game since undergoing Tommy John surgery. He struck out nine and walked one.
Afterward, in his dugout, he was mobbed by teammates, who offered hugs and handshakes following his first start since Aug. 24, 2013.
"The long anticipation was setting in," said Harvey, who was cut off at 91 pitches. "So I think today was a good start and obviously it's good to get the win."
As he had vowed, he picked up right where he left off in 2013, when his fastball averaged 95.4 mph. Against the Nationals Thursday? 95.9.
A year ago, the Nationals thrashed the Mets, posting a 15-4 mark in the season series. But the Mets began 2015 by taking two of three games thanks to Harvey, who picked up his 13th career victory and first since a shutout of the Rockies on Aug. 7, 2013.
"I don't even know what that would be like, being down that long, then coming back and doing what he did," said Travis d'Arnaud, who had a two-out, two-run single in a four-run third inning. "It's pretty incredible."
The Mets turned a few breaks and Ian Desmond's error into a 4-0 lead in the third, with three of the runs unearned. David Wright's two-run single in the sixth knocked Stephen Strasburg out of the game.
It was clear that this would be no pitchers' duel but a one-man exhibition. If Harvey felt any nerves, it wasn't obvious. But he revealed a sense for the occasion.
In the clubhouse hours before the game, Harvey took command of the stereo system. One of his first selections: Aerosmith's "Back in the Saddle." In the dugout, the nubs of his bats were emblazoned with his moniker in capital letters: "DARK KNIGHT."
In the half-empty stands, a boisterous group of Mets fans braved a cold, dreary afternoon to celebrate a day they had long envisioned. They roared as he finished his warm-ups.
Harvey's excitement built slowly. It began when he returned to the dugout from the bullpen just before the game. It continued until the Mets made the third out in the first, when realizing "that I was about to go out to work was pretty exciting."
At 1:17 p.m., against Nationals leadoff man Michael Taylor, Harvey fired a 96-mph fastball for a called strike. He soon finished him off with a knee-buckling curveball.
Harvey overwhelmed his blemishes with raw power, the kind that he brandished against Nationals slugger Bryce Harper. He struck him out three times -- all on high fastballs. The radar gun readings: 97, 97, 96.
"He's one of the toughest at-bats I've ever had," Harper said.
Harvey struck out six of the first 12 batters he faced but needed 57 pitches to get through three innings. He was in danger of an early exit, but he wouldn't let that happen. With a four-run lead, he devoted himself to throwing strikes. He needed only eight pitches to get through the fourth and another 12 in the fifth.
The end came in the sixth. The final flourish was on a nasty changeup that left Clint Robinson staggering. By then, there was little doubt.
The Dark Knight had returned, and it was as if he never went away. Somehow, he had beaten time.
Said Terry Collins: "Nothing he does surprises me."
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