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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Matt Harvey, Mets rotation appear to be on right track, but with Mets, you never know what will happen

Set the bar low for expectations: If the starting rotation is healthy for Opening Day, that’s a success.

Mets pitcher Matt Harvey during a spring training

Mets pitcher Matt Harvey during a spring training workout on Feb. 15, 2018, in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

TAMPA, Fla. — When assessing the Mets’ rotation, it’s great to imagine the Cy Young possibilities, or dream about what might happen if the supposedly Fab Five somehow pitch to their potential. We’ve done it for years now.

As surely as the calendar flips to February, the talk starts anew, hitching the Mets’ playoff hopes to a recurring fantasy that typically dissolves by Memorial Day, sometimes much sooner. So before we delve too deep into Matt Harvey’s performance Saturday against the Yankees at Steinbrenner Field, hold that thought.

Close your eyes. Let all that previous disappointment swish around between your ears like dirty laundry on the rinse cycle. Harvey’s numerous surgeries, Noah Syndergaard’s ripped lat muscle, Steven Matz’s puzzling maladies, Zack Wheeler’s endless recoveries.

Revisit that pain.

OK, now open your eyes again. Here we are, safely back to 2018, and Harvey went 4 2⁄3 innings Saturday without the slightest grimace or groan. He walked off the mound under his own power, gave a fist-bump to Mickey Callaway at the top of the dugout steps and disappeared to the clubhouse, already looking ahead to the next start.

Jacob deGrom, after a slight derailment because of a stiff back, will make his Grapefruit League debut Sunday at First Data Field. Matz and Wheeler are coming off solid outings with nary a bump or bruise. Jason Vargas has been, well, Jason Vargas.

Maybe you don’t want to hear this, but where we stand in early March, with this jinxed group of pitchers, it’s important to set the bar relatively low. We’re putting the baseline at having a breathing, fully-functional rotation, in shape and stretched out in time for the first week of the regular season, which kicks off March 29 against the Cardinals at Citi Field.

That’s still pretty far off. And based on our evaluations of Callaway and Dave Eiland, the Mets’ two resident pitching gurus, there’s faith that these arms seem to be in good hands. By using all that as context, now we can soberly examine Harvey’s day, one that he described as “fastball-heavy” with an emphasis on his mechanics.

The box score looks uninspiring: six hits and five earned runs over 4 2/3 innings, with two strikeouts and a walk. Harvey was knocked out by a titanic two-run blast from Giancarlo Stanton, who fittingly chose the Mets to dent with his first spring-training homer.

Not a perfect afternoon. But Harvey minimized some big trouble in the first inning, retired eight straight before a two-out walk to Aaron Judge in the fifth, and very nearly whiffed Stanton with an 0-and-2 fastball that didn’t miss the outside corner by much. Instead, Harvey came back with another heater, and split the plate at 94 mph, a pitch that Stanton is paid to destroy, which he did.

“From the beginning of the start to the end of the start, I was focusing on my mechanics,” Harvey said. “And I think I did that very well today.”

Throughout his 61-pitch performance, Harvey’s fastball stayed strong in the 94-96 range, so his stamina is where it should be. While the numbers make it appear that Harvey cratered after allowing only one run in his previous two starts — a total of five innings — Callaway reiterated that this is nothing like being equipped with the scouting and preparation that goes into a batter-by-batter dissection of a regular-season lineup.

It’s still practice, and from where Harvey’s been, the rebuilding process never seems to stop. If Harvey is confident, and Callaway insists there is progress, then that has to be considered a net-positive at this stage. What else is there to go on? Harvey took on the teeth of the Yankees’ order — Brett Gardner leading off, followed by Judge and Stanton — got dinged up a bit, but also finished his designated workload for the day.

As Harvey suggested, throwing that many fastballs is playing with fire, but he and Callaway assured us that was Saturday’s game plan going in. Eventually, we’ll need to see the rest of Harvey’s arsenal, to get a better of sense of what he can deliver when these games count. As long as Harvey is physically capable of making his scheduled starts, the expectation is the upticks in his performance will come.

Harvey staunchly refuses to dive back into the past, or compare himself to the retired “Dark Knight” persona. That’s smart. It’s his only path to redemption now. And for the Mets’ rotation as a whole, it’s impossible to move forward as a group without taking the ball every fifth day and stepping on the mound.

Once deGrom does that Sunday, there will be a tugging temptation to believe in this group all over again. As long as they’re pitching, the dream lives. Start worrying about the results in another few weeks.

New York Sports