If the Mets could do it all over again, knowing what they know now, after seeing Matt Harvey utterly come apart this season, would they have chosen to shut him down early last September?
Or is that merely a smokescreen, an alibi born of convenience, a way of covering for a pitcher unable to fend for himself?
Those thoughts came to mind Thursday night as the Nationals pummeled everything Harvey threw — fastball, slider, curve. It didn’t matter. Harvey, like a punch-drunk boxer, was unable to protect himself.
But it wasn’t only Daniel Murphy and Co. harassing Harvey. The same Citi Field fans who pleaded for Harvey in Game 5 of the World Series, chanted for his return in the ninth inning, booed him relentlessly Thursday night. This was the Dark Knight in full, humiliating spiral until Terry Collins finally retrieved him with two outs in the third inning.
The Mets insist Harvey is fine physically, aside from Collins making a roundabout reference to his spring training bladder issues after the Nationals’ 9-1 romp. But whatever is ailing Harvey, he’s got to be the one who ultimately steps up and fixes it. Hanging an 0-and-2 curveball to Murphy, who blasted a two-run homer in the first inning, or folding up after Asdrubal Cabrera’s error led to a seven-run third, is not attacking the problem.
“I’m not happy about it,” Harvey said. “I know nobody else is. I’m going to pick up tomorrow and kind of, like I’ve said all along, look for answers.”
How did we get here? Eight months ago, Harvey was three outs away from owning this city. Rather than bow to a 180-inning threshold, he refused to be leashed. And the Mets were happy to oblige him, all the way to 215 innings.
But now, after Thursday night’s nine-run smackdown — the lowest moment of Harvey’s career — he’s a cautionary tale, a defeated pitcher with a 5.77 ERA and seemingly no compass to point him toward redemption.
Collins said before Thursday night’s game that he hoped the adrenaline spike from the Citi staredown with the Nationals would be the antidote for Harvey. It failed. For those who get excited about exit velo, three of the Nationals’ hits during the third inning registered triple-digits. And with each loud whack, Harvey seemed to shrink on the mound.
“First thing we’ve got to do right now, I think, is try to build up some confidence,” Collins said. “Some way, somehow.”
Collins keeps referring to a potential hangover from Harvey working overtime last season, and if that’s true, maybe he shouldn’t have pitched into November. The Mets didn’t realize it during their playoff run, and neither did we. But is this the collateral damage left from that push for glory?
“This kid went above and beyond last year, and I’m not sure he’s recuperated from it,” Collins said. “It’s not an excuse. We don’t make excuses here. I think it might be a reason.”
Back then, it felt like the correct move. In retrospect, there is reasonable doubt. The Nationals faced the same scenario in 2012 with Stephen Strasburg, whose first full season back from Tommy John surgery was capped at 159 innings, stopping him short of the playoffs. The Nationals were ridiculed for the move, especially after being eliminated in the Division Series. “I thought it was the right decision then,” general manager Mike Rizzo said yesterday, “and I think it’s the right decision today.”
Strasburg, fresh off signing a $175-million extension, struck out 10 in six innings in Thursday night’s rout, using a fastball that peaked at 97-98 mph.
Perhaps Harvey will be that kind of pitcher again someday and this will be remembered as merely an unfortunate step in that occasionally ugly process.
The Mets can only hope. There’s no going back now.