Ignore the numbers. Disregard the box score. The Mets are going to extreme measures to paint whatever Matt Harvey does as progress, but we can’t buy it, not after watching his five-inning performance Tuesday night during the Mets’ 9-3 victory over the woeful Padres.
Harvey’s return to the Citi Field mound for the first time since going AWOL on May 6 had to be considered encouraging in one aspect: he showed up for it. Beyond that, the Mets staked him to a 7-0 advantage in the first inning and Harvey struggled mightily to protect that huge lead despite the tremendous good fortune.
His instant postgame analysis? “A little shaky,” Harvey said. “Not ideal.”
That was as close as anyone got to a proper evaluation of Harvey’s night. And the final line is deceiving. While it’s indisputable that Harvey allowed three hits and two runs over five innings, with four walks and six strikeouts, there’s some other noteworthy details that help with perspective for this 103-pitch effort (60 strikes).
First, a few words on the Padres, whose .219 batting average was rock bottom in the majors heading into Tuesday night’s game. Their .657 OPS ranked next-to-last. And San Diego’s 399 strikeouts were the fourth-most overall in the sport.
This was teed up perfectly for Harvey. Not only did the flopping Friars, with a Quadruple-A lineup, stumble into Citi just in time for his rotation turn, but they also fell hopelessly behind before most of the 24,337 fans had even bought a hot dog. All Harvey had to do was pump fastballs, over and over, then watch the Padres get themselves out.
But it didn’t go that way, basically because Harvey had almost zero fastball control early on. Other than the baggage he carried from earlier this month, this was the simplest of pitching assignments. The Mets made sure to start Harvey twice on the road after his three-game suspension, but the Citi fans seemingly harbored no animosity, and only offered up a smattering of boos when Harvey inexplicably walked Craig Stammen — the Padres’ relief pitcher — to open the third inning.
In fact, Harvey twice issued leadoff walks, despite the large cushion, but only got burned once, when the Padres clawed back for two runs in the second. After the Mets knocked out starter Jhoulys Chacin during their first-inning assault, Harvey immediately walked Ryan Schimpf — on four pitches.
He threw six straight balls to open that second inning before Hunter Renfroe launched an RBI-double that hit midway up the centerfield wall. By the third inning, pitching coach Dan Warthen already had visited the mound twice, and Harvey needed some exceptional luck to hold the Padres to just the pair of runs.
With two on in the third inning, and two outs, Schimpf drilled a 108-mph line drive that rocketed directly to Jay Bruce on the fly. In the fourth, Erick Aybar’s well-struck grounder was headed into rightfield for a single — but instead struck the running Austin Hedges on the leg for the third out. A couple feet in either direction, and it’s a very different night for Harvey.
But that’s how far away Harvey remains from the Dark Knight persona he cultivated during his prime years, and still is searching to find after last year’s surgery to repair thoracic outlet syndrome. And the Mets are going overboard to grade him on a curve, trying to restore his confidence while he works through whatever mechanical issues still dog him.
“His command wasn’t very good, his velocity was down,” Terry Collins said. “But he pitched through it. There’s a space for that in the process of getting better.”
What can the Mets cling to here? The six Ks matched Harvey’s season-best. And for cosmetic purposes, he also trimmed his ERA to 5.36. Otherwise, this was more like treading water, with Harvey doing everything possible to keep his head clear of the waves. Harvey hasn’t completed six innings in his past five starts, dating back to April 21, and he barely made it through five Tuesday night. For what it’s worth, Harvey finished up by striking out the side.
But if this is what Harvey is now, or even for the foreseeable future, it’s not anywhere near the version the Mets need to save this season. There’s no other way to say it.