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Matt Harvey's exhibition debut just first step on long road

New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey faces hitters

New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey faces hitters during a pitching session today Friday, Feb. 27, 2015 at a spring training workout in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

VIERA, Fla. - From a strictly baseball standpoint, the return of Matt Harvey to game competition barely moves the needle.

For a while now, the Mets have treated the ace like any other starter. Beginning with Friday's Grapefruit League outing against the Tigers, Harvey is scheduled to pitch about 20 innings in camp, although they won't count toward his cap for the season.

It's far too early to draw any conclusions.

"It's March 6,'' Harvey said himself this week. "We can't put too much emphasis on the day.''

Of course, the meaning of Harvey's first game since surgery goes far beyond the zip on his fastball or the tilt on his slider. It goes beyond what takes place between the lines.

For the first time in one year, six months and 10 days, the Mets will be whole again. And it's not a moment too soon for the franchise, which has missed its ace.

Before the start of camp, general manager Sandy Alderson said Harvey's presence alone might be enough to change the tenor. That theory already has been put to the test.

Just in the last week, Mets captain David Wright and veteran Bobby Parnell scolded top pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard for eating lunch in the clubhouse instead of sitting with his teammates during an intrasquad game.

Second baseman Daniel Murphy made controversial comments about gay former major-leaguer Billy Bean. And a disgruntled fan installed a billboard near the team's complex imploring the Mets' embattled owners to sell.

But the moment that SNY goes live Friday, the focus will be squarely on baseball. Specifically, it will be on the mound, which Harvey will occupy in a game for the first time since Aug. 23, 2013.

"He's going to be all jacked up and he should be,'' manager Terry Collins said. "But I just want him to go out there and understand that this is part of the process of getting back.''

Even Collins admits that might be asking a lot of Harvey, who has long been defined by his outsized competitive streak. Asking Harvey to dial it down might be even more far- fetched, considering that he will be matched up with Tigers star David Price. The two old pals have been texting about the matchup.

Nevertheless, Harvey has paid plenty of lip service to the idea of getting his work in, and how exhibition games exist only to work up toward game mode.

"I do realize there's a long way to go,'' said Harvey, who is scheduled to throw 35 to 40 pitches.

On multiple occasions, Collins has said he hopes Harvey treats his return as if it's little more than a live batting practice session, a message he intends to reiterate Friday.

"Pretend the guys in the batter's box are wearing Mets jerseys,'' Collins said. "Throw to both sides of the plate, throw some strikes, get used to the game speed of stuff again and we'll move forward.''

But there's no guarantee that Harvey won't be tempted to light up the radar gun, just to prove that he can.

"One of the things that makes this guy who he is is the way that he approaches the game,'' Collins said. "When he's out there, every time he's on the field, it means something.''

For the Mets, the talk about Harvey no longer centers on health but on getting prepared for the season.

"Since he started throwing the way he did, and the way he recovered as quickly as he did, I don't have a great deal of worry or apprehension or worry,'' pitching coach Dan Warthen said. "Once he gets that first hitter out, everything is going to start flowing.''

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