PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
Since we’re all in a huge hurry to either anoint Matt Harvey a 20-game winner or a broken-down Dark Knight beyond repair, here’s the number that should be the most meaningful takeaway from Sunday’s start against the Cardinals.
Five. As in March 5.
There are plenty of others to sift through, such as 94, his peak velocity. Or four, the number of runs Harvey surrendered in 1 2⁄3 innings, with three coming from Jose Martinez’s loud home run. Or three, his strikeout total, including when he froze Aledmys Diaz with a changeup.
If this had happened in the first week of the regular season, Harvey would be the Mayor of Panic City right now, and deservedly so. But we can’t sound the Bat-siren after one sad trombone of an afternoon at First Data Field.
As Harvey Days go, this ranked somewhere around Groundhog Day on the buzzkill scale. For the Mets’ sake, this better not mean six more weeks of ho-hum Harvey. For now, we’ll buy his work-in-progress explanation. There’s still another month before he takes the mound for real, and this was his first time pitching against another team since last July.
In the interim, Harvey had his chest opened up, a rib removed, and presumably the circulation to his shoulder restored — after undergoing Tommy John surgery, which is no picnic, in October 2013. If Harvey once thought himself invincible, he speaks now like a 20-something who’s had an early brush with his own mortality.
“After you’ve had two surgeries, you want to do everything you can to stay on the field,” he said after his Grapefruit League debut. “I think I’ve definitely realized that I need to put a lot more effort in before you go out there and just throw or go out there and run. You have to take care of your body better, and I think that’s definitely changed from this year since the last.”
It was a somewhat cryptic response. Was Harvey suggesting he had been negligent up to this point? Not quite. Just that he now puts more of an emphasis on injury prevention, which is logical after what he’s been through. But with all this talk about rehab and maintenance, we hardly mention Harvey as a dominant pitcher anymore. And when he’s less than overpowering, as he was Sunday, he can’t help but draw unsettling comparisons to his former Cy Young Award-caliber self.
Harvey also has to keep pace with fellow starters who are all potential aces, so any slip-ups are magnified. Noah Syndergaard, to no one’s surprise, touched 99 mph Friday and hovered around 97. Jacob deGrom, in his first appearance since the ulnar nerve in his elbow was surgically repositioned, came out throwing an easy 97 mph against the Astros on Saturday.
Naturally, we anticipated the same from Harvey because it happened before, two years ago, in his comeback from Tommy John surgery. That day, an over-amped Harvey threw 99 with a razor-sharp assortment of pitches that was weeks ahead of schedule. He was nothing like that 2015 version Sunday. But whether that’s a good or bad thing is yet to be determined.
“I think he realizes what it takes right now,” Terry Collins said. “He’s had a couple of bumps in the road, so he realizes this is something he’s got to endure and he’s got to do it the right way. He can’t go charging in there. I know he just wants to find the level of mechanics that he had in the past where he can be consistent with his release point. As long as the shoulder continues to build up, you’ll see an increase in velocity.”
Collins said he considered scratching Harvey because of a stiff neck, but the pitcher convinced him he was fine. He did wear visible circulatory tape on his neck, however, and maybe he was being more careful.
“I just told him, don’t be a hero,” Collins said. “Go about your business. I was glad that he went out there.”
To expect vintage Harvey on this early date — again — was unreasonable. But from this point forward, we’ll be keeping a closer eye on the numbers.