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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Matt Harvey takes command, shrugs off pressure and Stephen Strasburg

Matt Harvey of the Mets delivers a pitch

Matt Harvey of the Mets delivers a pitch against the Washington Nationals at Citi Field. (April 19, 2013) Credit: Jim McIsaac

Matt Harvey had it all stacked high on his plate Friday night at Citi Field.

The loaded Nationals in town, Stephen Strasburg opposing him, and for those requiring some historical perspective, Dwight Gooden sitting in the front row.

Harvey's reaction? What else ya got?

As pressure situations go, this was about as much as Harvey had faced since he made his major-league debut July 26 in Arizona. His three previous starts felt like tuneups by comparison, and he blew past the Padres and Phillies before nearly no-hitting the Twins at frigid Target Field.

Friday night was supposed to be a step up, the first real test of 2013, against a Nationals team many consider a World Series favorite. To Harvey, they were about as intimidating as Triple-A Syracuse, and he weathered a seventh-inning speed bump to strike out seven and improve to 4-0 with a 0.93 ERA.

"He functions at such high octane always," catcher John Buck said. "He's the way he is and that's what makes him so good. It doesn't matter who he's facing -- that's Matt Harvey."

And Strasburg? He looked as if he were waiting for his innings limit to kick in.

When Ike Davis and Lucas Duda took Strasburg deep for solo homers in the sixth inning, the Citi Field crowd emphatically delivered its verdict.

"Harvey's better!" the fans bellowed.

All that, and Gooden cheering him on? Harvey sneaked a peek to see Dr. K on the videoboard, then went back to business.

"I grew up watching him," Harvey said. "I wanted to be a guy of his caliber. Now him watching me, it's kind of mind-boggling."

Harvey was in control from his opening pitch to Denard Span, a 96-mph fastball, but it was Strasburg who deflated any premature no-hit dreams by slicing a double inside the rightfield line in the third inning.

Harvey showed up. Strasburg didn't. Is there something to be learned from that? Not anything Terry Collins didn't already know. "I have a pretty good idea how he's going to react," Collins said before the game. "But I'm anxious to see him perform. This is when the real good players step up."

Collins didn't upgrade that to great, but you got the idea the manager was keeping that tucked away in the back of his mind for use at some future date. And that day is coming sooner rather than later. Any conversation involving Harvey already includes names such as Gooden and Tom Seaver.

That's serious company, but the Mets don't seem too concerned about overselling their young pitching stud -- maybe because they believe it's deserved. More importantly, Harvey doesn't appear fazed at all by the lofty praise. He expects to be out on the mound earning it every fifth day.

"He wants to be the best there is in the game," Collins said. "The last time I heard someone say that was [Barry] Bonds. That's a pretty big statement, I thought, and all he's done thus far is backed it up."

When the Nats finally scored in the seventh on a leadoff walk and two singles, a botched double-play flip by Daniel Murphy loaded the bases with none out. At that moment, Harvey teetered on the edge of losing it all.

And that's when he readjusted his grip -- not on the ball but the game. He struck out Kurt Suzuki, then got pinch hitter Roger Bernadina on a foul pop behind the plate. The last hurdle was Span, and with the crowd chanting "Harvey, Harvey!" he got him to ground to second on an 89-mph changeup.

"It's nice to hear, but I've got a long way to go," Harvey said. "We're the New York Mets and not just one guy."

With Davey Johnson in the other dugout, it was inevitable that the pregame chat would turn to the Gooden-Harvey progression, the passing of the torch from one homegrown Mets ace to another. It's taken almost three decades. But in listening to Johnson, and the "arm-twisting" of then-general manager Frank Cashen to get the 19-year-old Gooden to the majors back then, Harvey made it feel a bit like the mid-80s again. "Doc was very special," Johnson said before adding, "I'm not one that reminisces very much."

Until Harvey, that's all the Mets did. But after Friday night, this franchise has reason to look forward again, even if it's only five days ahead to his next start.

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