David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
The Mets took 20 innings to lose to the Marlins, but the only one that really mattered Saturday was the eighth, which is when Matt Harvey unexpectedly walked off the mound with a team trainer.
Harvey felt some tightness along his right side, in the lower back and hip area of the leg he uses to push off from the rubber. Four hours later, after 12 innings of chiropractic treatment, Harvey said it was nothing more than a recurring condition he's experienced since his days at the University of North Carolina.
There's no reason to doubt him. But with this season shot, the Mets won't be taking any chances with this version of the Franchise, and Saturday again made it painfully clear that this year is primarily about two pitchers: Harvey and Zack Wheeler.
The home-and-home sweep of the Yankees gave Terry Collins' crew the slightest glimmer of hope, the tease that maybe, just maybe, there was a spark still flickering somewhere in this barren roster. But that ember was stamped out this past week, and Saturday's 2-1 loss to the Marlins just felt cruel and unusual.
Think of these games as summer training. Just as it is in the Grapefruit League, the future is to be protected at all costs, and Collins -- after what had to be a stomach-churning defeat -- was reminded of his role as a glorified custodian. Collins seemed a tad nervous that he didn't remove Harvey soon enough, but he didn't learn of the hip issue until his ace finally told first-base coach Tom Goodwin.
Harvey was on the mound getting ready for the eighth when Goodwin told the manager. Seconds later, Collins charged out there with the trainer in tow.
"That's a red flag," Collins said. "I mean, my goodness gracious. If there's anybody right now we don't want hurt, it's Matt Harvey. He said it loosened up as he warmed up, but I said, ah, sorry, that will be enough for tonight."
The Mets were fortunate. In Harvey's words, a slight "adjustment" was all it took to "pop" it back into place. The next time, Harvey said, he should be able to get it fixed between innings. But really, what would be the point?
Harvey allowed six hits and one run in seven innings, but the Mets scored only once in 20. It's sort of like watching Michael Jordan if he played for the Washington Generals. Brilliance surrounded by hapless futility. As the spring training cliché goes, Harvey got his work in.
Soon it will be Wheeler's turn, and a source said his debut now is more likely to come during the June 18 doubleheader against the Braves at Turner Field. The Mets have never been great at the whole decision-making thing. Two weeks ago, they had Ike Davis and Ruben Tejada ticketed for Las Vegas before a stunning upset of Mariano Rivera caused them to reverse field in a matter of minutes.
For Wheeler, it shouldn't be so difficult to plan a course of action and stick to it. The Super-2 deadline, which isn't a known quantity until after the season, is all but over and the Mets are likely to be spared that extra year of arbitration, even if he comes up next weekend against the Cubs, as the team originally targeted.
Wheeler has nothing left to prove fumbling out in Las Vegas with dry baseballs, thin air and whatever other PCL inconveniences we can dream up. He's throwing 98 with improving command, and Wally Backman is telling anyone within earshot that he's ready, so it's time to let him continue his education in a more controlled environment.
What do the Mets have to lose? More games? They got that covered. If the front office believes Wheeler is capable of handling the mental leap, take the plunge, and he'll likely lead a parade of call-ups that should follow after the All-Star break. Harvey pitched through last season's second-half pratfall with blinders on. The Mets need Wheeler to do the same.
He won't be looked at as any kind of savior. The Mets took care of that by removing themselves from contention by Father's Day. All that will be asked of him is to take the baseball, throw strikes and get some people out. Use these next four months as a tune-up to prepare for 2014, which presumably will include those "meaningful games" Fred Wilpon talked about once upon a time.
This season, however, feels as important as, well, a 20-inning loss to the Marlins. The best thing Harvey did all day was walk away from it.