Matt Harvey struggled to fight back the tears.
The Dark Knight. The former Mets ace, tabloid darling, Manhattan playboy, the same Matt Harvey who once held Gotham in the palm of his magical right hand. A sneering, defiant, bullying baseball force who had the power to both elevate the Mets and antagonize them.
Yet here he was Wednesday, all these years later, whipsawed by emotion, climbing the Citi Field mound again as if it were his personal Everest. For Harvey to hear the standing ovation that greeted him was almost too much to bear. Never had the grateful applause of 8,035 fans been appreciated more, and in this case, by a prodigal son wearing an Orioles uniform.
"It was hard," Harvey said. "I mean, it’s a very special place to me. I’d like to say I gave everything I had here. Especially in that 2015 run, it was really something special. I felt it all out there for everybody -- for the fans, for our teammates. That was a big year for us as a team and for the city of New York. Those memories definitely came in when I got some cheers, and got the standing ovation. It was absolutely incredible. It’s something I’ll never forget."
And similar to his comet-like ascension in Flushing that included one All-Star Game start, one World Series appearance and two career-altering surgical procedures, Harvey’s homecoming Wednesday did not have a fairy-tale ending. The Mets put a sizable dent in Harvey’s latest comeback effort, throttling him for eight hits and seven runs over 4 1/3 inning for a 7-1 victory that was his worst outing this season.
The bulk of the damage to Harvey came during a 21-pitch second inning, when the Mets reeled off four straight hits, including Kevin Pillar’s two-run triple (two feet short of clearing the leftfield wall’s orange stripe) and Jose Peraza’s RBI single. By then, the crowd’s adoration for Harvey had flipped back to the Mets, dumping nostalgia for the fast-developing seventh straight victory.
Harvey had to be feeling drained. Not only was he coping with the sentimental residue of that first-inning ovation, but the fans got to their feet again when Harvey walked to the plate in the second and the Citi PA system blared U2’s "Sunday Bloody Sunday" --- his warmup anthem with the Mets. It wasn’t surprising that Harvey took a called third strike. Who knows where his mind was at any moment Wednesday?
"I was holding back tears," Harvey said. "I’m not going to lie about that."
For all the warmth extended to him on this sunny afternoon, his first start at Citi Field since 2018 -- a stretch of 1,105 days -- Harvey had considered the possibility of a frostier reception. At times, Harvey could be a petulant Met, a pitching diva, angering teammates and the front office alike by blowing off a postseason workout and even going AWOL in not showing up for a home game during what would be his final days in Flushing.
Eventually, as his brilliance waned -- sapped by surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome -- so did the tolerance for the aggravation he caused. Harvey wondered if any of those bad feelings still lingered, and if so, would they surface again Wednesday when he finally opposed the Mets.
"Obviously the last couple of years weren’t the way I wanted them to go," Harvey said of his tenure’s end. "Between the injuries and I think me getting my own way and causing some of those problems, I feel for them -- I feel for the fans that maybe I let them down. I think it’s fair to say that I would understand if they did [boo me].
"I’m extremely happy that they didn’t and it went the other way. But the last couple of years, especially here, have been extremely humbling and I’ve learned from my mistakes. Finally being healthy and trying to kind of reinvent myself hasn’t been easy. Besides today, I think things have been going in the right direction."
It’s safe to say that Harvey, who turned 32 last month, won’t get anywhere near the pinnacle he reached during those glory years with the Mets. He’s a much different pitcher now, and person. But the "what ifs" continue to follow him about that 2015 season -- plowing through that innings-limit after TJ surgery, going out for the ninth in Game 5 of the World Series. You could argue that cost him a career, and maybe $300 million.
"Things happen," Harvey said. "Yeah, it was a lot of innings, but we were in the playoffs and World Series. I would never take that back. Those experiences, those memories. The cheers coming off the field. It’s something you can’t explain and will never forget."
It was Orioles manager Brandon Hyde who took the ball from Harvey in the fifth inning Wednesday -- not Terry Collins in the ninth. And as he walked to the third-base dugout this time, to yet another standing ovation, Harvey kept his head down, likely to hide a tear or two.
"I wish it was different," Harvey said.