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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Matt Harvey's struggles a sobering reminder

New York Mets starting pitcher Matt Harvey delivers

New York Mets starting pitcher Matt Harvey delivers in the top of the first inning of a game against the San Francisco Giants at Citi Field on Wednesday, June 10, 2015. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

For a while, Matt Harvey believed the rules didn't apply to him, that he could defy the volumes of data and cheat the toll demanded from others by Tommy John surgery.

But as Harvey stood at his locker late Wednesday night, after the Giants became the latest team to deliver another bitter dose of humility, he sounded as mystified as the rest of us ordinary folk.

He served up three homers for the first time in his career and allowed seven runs in six innings, matching another career worst. When asked what happened, he spoke softly and in uncomplicated terms. "I don't know," he said. "Everything was all over the place. There's a lot of work that needs to be done."

History tells us that pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery experience these dark periods in the first year back. In his past four starts, he has given up eight homers in 25 innings and has a 7.20 ERA. The Giants won, 8-5, and it was the first time in Harvey's career that he lost despite at least four runs of support.

This is becoming a trend with Harvey and a disturbing one for the Mets, who have looked at him like a real-life superhero, not just a pitcher with the "Dark Knight" moniker.

He refused to blame his post-op flop on a TJ hangover -- "I'm not going to use that as an excuse," he said -- but Terry Collins had no other answers that made sense.

What else could it be? Harvey still was throwing 98 mph in the sixth inning, when the Giants went deep twice and scored five runs. The stuff was fine. The location was not, and that lack of command is textbook post-TJ syndrome. It's considered part of the transition from rehab patient to elite pitcher, but we're not used to watching this vulnerable side of Harvey.

To the manager, however, it's not completely unexpected. "I think it's all a process on the learning curve for him, coming back after surgery," Collins said. "It's not just about having great stuff. It's about making great pitches. Right now, he's leaving balls in areas that they're seeing it pretty good."

The timing could not be worse for the Mets, who slipped a half-game behind the Nationals. They can't afford a prolonged spiral from Harvey. But after they worried so much about finding a way to keep a leash on his innings, he's not doing them much good taking the ball every fifth day, either. "Just a terrible performance," he said. "Right now, I'm not helping the team in any way."

If this had been Dillon Gee or Jonathon Niese, we'd be calling for his demotion to the bullpen. Or dumping him elsewhere. As it is, the Mets have been anxious to call up Steven Matz. They believe he's wasting starts in Las Vegas and they are trying to trade a pitcher, sooner rather than later, to accommodate him.

Matz figures into the Mets' strategy of using a spot starter to limit the innings for the rotation as a whole. But we're not sure if Harvey needs a quick blow or a more extended break.

Harvey had led us to believe this day would never come, and we were easily convinced after seeing that first 99-mph fastball in Port St. Lucie. But this June swoon should serve as a reality check. He no longer can fight any designs to protect him, whether it's an extra day between starts or skipping a turn entirely. Now that he has gotten a glimpse of his own mortality, he probably is making it easier for the Mets to be more conservative in the months ahead.

We'll assume this is just an extended blip -- a recalibration, if you will. If not, then skipping a few of Harvey's starts won't seem like such a big deal anymore. Niese or Gee can do what he's been doing lately. And Matz probably would be an upgrade.In the hours leading up to Wednesday's start, Collins said he wasn't considering any slowdown tactics for Harvey. Not after the six-man fiasco, which was an organizational fail as much as anything. The Mets were back to full-speed ahead, even if Collins wasn't looking forward to reining in Harvey at a later date.

"It will be very hard to do," Collins said before the game. "But the way things are playing out at this particular moment, he's going to pitch. He's going to pitch as much as we need him out there."

On Wednesday, that was debatable.

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