When things start clicking, athletes like to say that the game slows down. Reaction time shortens, and the sport comes so naturally, it can feel as if things are moving at half speed.
Steven Matz’s case is a little different. In fact, it’s the inverse: When things slow down, he starts clicking.
That was the case on Wednesday afternoon when Matz managed to avoid the constant thorn in his career — the one big inning — all by taking a few steps, playing with the rosin bag and resettling. For a pitcher who’s known for his speed on the mound, it takes a concerted effort to slow down when things get rough, but it paid immediate dividends: Matz skirted around trouble and lasted 6 2/3 innings, giving up two runs and seven hits as the Mets defeated the Marlins, 7-2. It was their sixth victory in a row and their 13th in 14 games. He also had two walks and seven strikeouts, and improved to 7-7 with a 4.49 ERA.
The performance was a far cry from his previous outing, when he turned in a nightmare fourth inning against the Pirates and allowed all five of his earned runs. And there was, too, his early season struggles— marked by an inability to pitch a clean first inning.
“We were timing him a little bit in-between pitches,” manager Mickey Callaway said. “He’s throwing every pitch in like seven seconds. That’s just off the charts quick in-between [pitches]. That’s what you want to do when you’re going and rolling and going good. But if you throw a couple balls, you need to back up, regroup and he’s really identifying that well.”
It mostly worked in the second inning, when Matz allowed a leadoff walk — Garrett Cooper, who later scored — but gave up just the one run. Granted, he was helped when two runners were thrown out, but Matz’s ability to induce a ground ball with a runner on third that resulted in an out at the plate was crucial. Matz had both of his walks in that inning.
“Really throughout the game I was just trying to be mindful of still working quick, but just taking a second every once in a while, and not throw a bad pitch just because I’m just rushing instead of taking my time, and really just focusing on executing a pitch,” Matz said. “It was definitely a conscious effort and also the heat, the humidity actually played in my favor there because I couldn’t rush. I had to take my time, going to the rosin bag and stuff. Honestly, that helped as well.”
Callaway pointed to the fifth inning as a sign of Matz’s improvement. On the outside, it didn’t look like much: Matz retired the bottom of the order and leadoff hitter with little to-do. But what Callaway saw was Matz getting behind on the opposing pitcher, Jordan Yamamoto (.077 average going into Wednesday and no walks). The first three pitches were either out of the strike zone or borderline, though Yamamoto fouled off one, and instead of charging ahead, Matz “stood back off the mound, grabbed the rosin, regrouped himself and ended up striking him out with some pretty good fastballs,” Callaway said. “He’s continuing to understand that he needs to focus on the next pitch.”
Matz seemed reinvigorated by the team’s recent success. The Mets are three games over .500, a complete psychological overhaul from where they were a month ago, and this upcoming stretch could mean everything. After feasting on mediocre teams during this winning patch, they’ll face the Nationals and Braves. And despite the firepower on both those teams, this rotation — Matz included — makes continued success feasible.
“It’s real exciting,” Matz said. I think it’s a motivator for me just seeing what [my teammates] do. I just want to build off that and keep the ball rolling here. I think we’ve got something good going on and, that said, we’re going to stay level and keep going after it.”
Slow down, settle down and then attack. It's what worked for him.