WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Substitute Jake Marisnick for Yulieski Gurriel, and the Astros used the same lineup Monday against the Mets as they did for Game 5 of last year’s World Series.
So yeah, as spring training tests go, what Steven Matz had on his plate was like a college kid stacking up every one of his final exams for the same afternoon. These were the ’17 champs, featuring the AL MVP (Jose Altuve) and World Series MVP (George Springer) in the final days of preparing for their title defense.
“You saw it,” Mickey Callaway said. “That’s maybe the best lineup he’s going to face all season.”
Matz fared much better than Clayton Kershaw did that October night at Minute Maid Park. The former Ward Melville star aced his fifth — and most important — Grapefruit League start by striking out nine without issuing a walk in six innings. Matz whiffed five straight and six of his final seven in the Mets’ 2-0 loss to the Astros.
“I’m really feeling comfortable on the mound right now,” said Matz, who has a 2.51 ERA in his last three starts. “I feel like I can go out there and attack.”
The word Matz kept using was “conviction,” or believing in the pitches he’s throwing. Matz had good command of a fastball around 90-92 mph that peaked at 94. But his standout pitch was a curveball that floated by at 76-78 mph and consistently dropped into the strike zone. Matz locked up Brian McCann twice for strikeouts with the curve, which made the fastball that much more effective.
“That was a potent lineup,” Callaway said, “and he went right after it.”
In the past, Matz’s failures were tied to his being too tentative, nibbling at corners, falling behind in counts and then getting blasted. On Monday, for the most part, he stayed aggressive, and the times he did get burned were on unfavorable counts.
Carlos Correa drilled a 1-and-0 changeup over the leftfield wall to lead off the second inning, a laser shot with such ferocity that it hooked toward the foul pole like a pulled 3-iron. Matz used the curve as his secondary pitch for the rest of the outing.
Matz allowed five hits but only two runs, with the other scoring when Alex Bregman’s two-out double preceded Altuve’s single to right in the third inning. Matz escaped further damage when he got Correa looking at a 90-mph fastball on the outside corner.
“He didn’t get frustrated,” Callaway said. “He didn’t speed up. He just focused on the next pitch.”
Even with the Mets waffling on a timetable for Jason Vargas’ return after Tuesday’s hand surgery, it’s safe to say that Matz solidified his rotation spot with this 91-pitch performance. Zack Wheeler is scheduled to start Thursday in Vargas’ place against the Nationals, and in all likelihood, Wheeler should be the No. 5. That would give the Mets an opportunity to deploy their original five starters in succession for the first week of the regular season, something that Matz would look forward to.
“I think it’s awesome,” he said. “I think when you go through adversity, it builds character. What we all went through makes us better pitchers in the end.”
The Mets aren’t there yet. Opening Day is more than a week away. But a healthy Matz would be a huge boost to a team that never had that version in 2017.
Watching him now, the difference is noticeable, as the Astros discovered. He doesn’t have anything left to prove in spring training, and he answered just about all the questions against the defending world champions. “Everybody knows he’s got good stuff,” Callaway said.
Now Matz is using it again, and this confidence-booster gives the Mets reason to believe he can keep doing this once the season starts and beyond.