JUPITER, Fla. — To see what Steven Matz did Monday in his first spring training start against the Cardinals makes it too easy to forget the risk, the roll of the dice pitching in the majors often is.
Matz outperformed the typical expectations for early March, looking sharper than he’s supposed to be this far ahead of Selection Sunday. That was partly by design, as the Mets delayed their stellar rotation from taking the mound by roughly a week.
The intention was to have them begin the Grapefruit League stronger, and more “game-ready,” as pitching coach Dan Warthen explained. Left unsaid was that three of the current Mets’ starters — Matz, Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom — have had Tommy John surgery, and went deep into October last season.
At this point, the only weapon the Mets possess to safeguard this prized collection of arms is caution. And far too often, that doesn’t work, either. On Monday, Matz came out firing, showing great location with all three of his pitches, with a fastball in the mid-90s. The former Ward-Melville star went three innings, and overpowered the Cardinals in the second, striking out the side on 12 pitches.
Matz whiffed Jedd Gyorko with a nasty curve, his signature pitch, then froze both Kolten Wong and Carlos Peguero on fastballs. He probably got away with a high third strike to Peguero, but Matz found the upper edge of the zone plate umpire Nic Lentz was calling.
Afterward, Warthen described the performance as “awesome” and for what’s technically still practice, Matz did more than merely work on polishing his pitches. They already shined. Even the part we expected Matz to get tripped up on, the adrenaline rush of his personal Opening Day, wasn’t an issue.
“I always have to tell myself to tone it down and I was able to stay within myself early,” Matz said. “I’m really happy with how I feel comfort-wise on the mound.”
Again, that’s as good as it gets for his first time facing another team since Game 4 of the World Series at Citi Field. A year ago, Matz was at this same Roger Dean Stadium simply trying to make an impression, laying the groundwork for a superb first half at Triple-A Las Vegas followed by his Mets’ debut June 28.
“I definitely feel more established,” Matz said.
At 24, with only six regular-season starts under his belt, Matz still treats this like auditioning for a job, as he should. But there are other, more subversive threats to his stature, his footing in the majors, and an example of that was the Cardinals pitcher who followed him in Monday’s game.
It was Jeremy Hefner, a former Met who is trying to make a comeback in St. Louis after not one, but two Tommy John procedures. Both happened inside a calendar year, with no previous signs of trouble, and were performed by different orthopedic surgeons.
The most alarming thing about Hefner’s second surgery is what made it necessary. Though the original transplanted ligament was intact, where it connected to the ulna bone, the anchor, became fractured during his rehab. Mysteriously, his arm just went dead, for apparently no reason. Everything was fine, until suddenly it wasn’t. And the orthopedists couldn’t give him a reason for why that happened to him.
“It was a freak thing,” Hefner said after Monday’s game. “The way Dr. Andrews explained it to me, it just happens every so often. Not very often, but every once a while. And I just happened to be that guy.”
Hefner made his major-league debut in 2012, and the next year, had a 4.34 ERA in 23 starts for the Mets before requiring Tommy John surgery. He was 27 then, and never realized a procedure that most take for granted could end up forcing him to rebuild his career all over again.
“Nothing’s ever guaranteed,” Hefner said.
We forget that sometimes, when it looks too easy. The Mets finally will unwrap each of their five starters this week in succession: Monday was the split-squad assignments with Matz and Bartolo Colon, followed by Matt Harvey (Tuesday versus the Braves), Jacob deGrom (Wednesday versus the Yankees) and Noah Syndergaard (Thursday versus the Cardinals).
It’s going to feel like a long month for the Mets, hoping they’re all healthy for the starting line in Kansas City. Knock on wood.