LAKELAND, Fla. — Steven Matz knows he is in a fight for a starting spot. He swears he doesn’t think about it, or even discuss it with fellow rotation candidates. But he did acknowledge, after four scoreless innings Friday against the Tigers, that this taste of success helps ease his mind a bit.
Matz had allowed 10 runs in 12⁄3 previous Grapefruit League innings. On Friday, however, he commanded his fastball and scattered three hits, matching the healthy and strong feeling he has had since camp opened.
“It’s huge for me,” said Matz, who threw 54 pitches. “Because I’m feeling healthy, I can really put in a lot of work between starts if something’s not feeling right. That’s what I did. It really helped me out this week.”
It’s going to need to help him in the weeks to come, too, if he is to make the Mets’ rotation. Matz is one of a handful of pitchers — including Zack Wheeler, Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman — competing for what is effectively one spot.
With Opening Day less than three weeks away, the Mets will have to decide on a No. 5 starter fairly soon.
Manager Mickey Callaway said one or more of the losers of that competition could begin the year in the bullpen. The Mets would want to assist those starters-turned-relievers with the transition by having them appear out of the bullpen in an exhibition game.
“We need to be cognizant of that for sure,” Callaway said. “We don’t have an absolute timeline, but we definitely are thinking about that in the back of our minds . . . We’re definitely concerned about that transition.”
Further complicating the decision is the reality that neither Matz nor Wheeler has big-league experience as a reliever. Both have lengthy injury histories, so it’s not certain whether they would be able to take on a relief role that requires their bodies and arms to bounce back sooner than every five days.
How a pitcher feels about relieving also will be considered, Callaway said. Lugo, for example, has been open about his willingness to fill either role. It helps that Lugo (10 games) and Gsellman (four) have done both in regular-season games.
“You have to buy in 100 percent to be able to go out there and have success,” Callaway said. “If they’re not, it’s probably unfair to them to put them in that situation.”
The other option would be sending non-rotation starters to Triple-A Las Vegas, where they could stay in their rotation routine and be ready if and when the Mets need another major-league starter.
There are a lot of factors to be weighed.
“We’re going to look at things for everybody differently,” Callaway said. “I think it’s going to be who can impact our team the greatest. What Matz can do and what Wheeler can do and what other guys can do are totally different. We have to take all that into account.”
On Friday, Callaway and Matz cited the lefthander’s ability to “finish his pitches” as a difference-maker. In previous starts, Callaway said, Matz was more worried about where his pitches would go. This time, he just threw them.
Put another way: Matz trusted his stuff. He said a late swing-and-miss by Miguel Cabrera in the first inning helped remind him to do that.
Matz worked on a slight mechanical tweak with pitching coach Dave Eiland this week and was pleased when it paid off. He needed a good game, and he got it.
“It was a big one. We were looking forward to this,” Calla way said. “I think this was huge for him. He’s got to have some success under his belt to get his mind the way he needs to get it going into the season. That was a big step for sure.”