LAKELAND, Fla. - Steven Matz stood alongside the rightfield fence and was asked to recount what might have been his only mistake of the day.
The lefthanded pitching prospect hoped to bury a fastball in on the hands of the Tigers' J.D. Martinez. It missed its target only slightly. Still, there was a price to pay.
"Middle-in," Matz said, shaking his head, as he watched the middle of the Mets' 6-4 loss to the Tigers.
It was a costly slip-up against Martinez, who hit .315 with 23 homers last season. Martinez got the barrel of his bat on Matz's fastball, and the drive hugged the line and cleared the fence 340 feet away in rightfield -- the opposite field.
It was the last small lesson learned in a camp filled with them for Matz, the Ward Melville product who was optioned to minor-league camp after the game.
With available innings dwindling and the starting rotation already full, the move had been expected. Yet Matz emerged from spring training with a sense of accomplishment.
"It's not going to be tough," he said just before the news became official. "I knew coming in that the Mets' pitching staff is pretty stacked and they have their five guys and I really wasn't expecting to make a starting spot out of spring training. I'm just happy with the opportunity I got."
Matz, 23, did not waste that chance. In four Grapefruit League outings, he posted a 2.08 ERA and left a positive impression on manager Terry Collins and pitching coach Dan Warthen.
"He's on the right road," Warthen said. "I would not be surprised if sometime this year we see Steven Matz."
Aside from Noah Syndergaard, no young arm in the Mets' system has drawn more raves than Matz's. Though neither will break camp with the rotation, both could be options within the first few months of the season.
With Zack Wheeler out for the year, Dillon Gee is the frontrunner to seize the spot. But with Syndergaard and Matz waiting in the wings, the Mets should have plenty of insurance if Gee falters.
Matz has revived his career the last two seasons after undergoing Tommy John surgery, which had threatened to end it before it could really start. Now he will begin his first season with Triple-A Las Vegas, just one step away from breaking through to the majors.
"He's where he needs to be, pounding the strike zone, ahead of most of the hitters," Warthen said. "I think it's a matter of him going out there and logging a few innings."
Against the Tigers, Matz showed why he has risen to become one of the Mets' top pitching prospects. His fastball sat in the mid-90s. But it was his two-seamer -- a weapon throughout spring training -- that seemed to work best.
Matz got ground balls against the Tigers, continuing what has been a trend for him.
"It's always the focus: Keep the ball down and use that two-seamer, try to get outs early," he said. "It's been something I've been doing this spring and pretty happy with."
The Tigers did not have Miguel Cabrera in the lineup, but they did play other regulars such as Martinez, Alex Avila and Yoenis Cespedes.
"[It] definitely helps any time you're facing big-league hitters and seeing their approach and trying to attack, definitely improves your game," Matz said.
Collins thinks he has plenty of reason to believe that Matz is capable of getting big-league hitters out.
"He's going to be very good," he said. "He's got all it takes. It's just now a matter of going out there with confidence and command. And he's going to be really good."
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