PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
Two years ago, almost to the day, Matt Harvey pitched the most anticipated Grapefruit League game in Mets history.
And Sunday against the Cardinals, he’ll pitch another one.
We describe it that way because anything Harvey does just feels a little more dramatic, a little more important, than anything anyone else does. It’s just who he is, and the mythology that’s been created during his choppy four-season tenure with the Mets.
Two years ago, Harvey returned from his 18-month rehab for Tommy John surgery and attacked the Tigers as if it were Game 7 of the World Series. His first pitch registered 96 mph on the radar gun. He threw 99 twice. Harvey retired all six Tigers he faced, whiffing three.
Harvey’s combination of power and poise that March afternoon was far beyond the norm for so early in spring training. But after being corralled for too long, Harvey was like a caged bull set loose on Tradition Field (now known as First Data Field). There was no restraining him.
“I felt like I was kind of over-ready for that,” Harvey recalled Saturday.
The preparation for this Grapefruit League debut, for delivering his first real pitch since July 4 of last season, has been more a study in patience during Harvey’s methodical climb back from surgery to repair thoracic outlet syndrome. Despite the urge to make up for another extended stretch of lost time, Harvey has been OK with the pace of this gradual rebuild.
But once he steps on the mound again Sunday, with the Cardinals staring back, Harvey won’t make any promises about what happens next. As soon as that switch flicks inside him, there’s no guarantee the Full Harvey won’t crash the party. Or at least make a cameo.
“You never know until you get out there,” Harvey said. “The adrenaline starts pumping. You’re facing a different team instead of your own guys. So it’s kind of a game-time thing. Going into it, I definitely feel a lot more relaxed than I did that time [in 2015]. They did a good job with kind of pushing us back a little bit until this weekend. I’m ready to go.”
Harvey was referring to the Mets’ blueprint of waiting to unleash the rotation until a week into the Grapefruit League schedule, an effort to preserve the starters for when the results actually count. Harvey might have to remind himself to leave something in the tank during what pitching coach Dan Warthen has penciled in as a two-inning, 30-pitch outing.
“I don’t think you’re going to see 98,” Warthen said. “But it’s there. I’ve seen it a few times. But all his pitches are coming out like we want them to. And I think his slider got back to where it’s supposed to be.”
While the narrative has been about Harvey trying to be Harvey again, there’s a new wrinkle. What if this next post-op Harvey, who will turn 28 on March 27, has learned a few more things since we last saw him pitching for the Mets?
For one, he seems more comfortable merely being a valuable part of this elite rotation rather than having to stand above it.
Harvey has kept a relatively lower profile this year while Noah Syndergaard has drawn most of the attention for his Twitter antics and WBC-bashing. This comeback has been all business for Harvey, who is re-energized to be pitching again without the mysterious shoulder weakness that eventually was diagnosed as thoracic outlet syndrome and led to season-ending surgery.
“There were times where there was some discomfort and I had to throw around different things last year,” Harvey said. “Now it’s nice to be able to throw the way I remember and have thrown my whole life. So that’s a big positive.”
Harvey’s shoulder wasn’t the only part of him deteriorating at the beginning of last season. As his performance slipped, his confidence eroded. Through his first 10 starts, he was 3-7 with a 6.08 ERA and teams were teeing off on him for a .330 average and .901 OPS.
Something obviously was wrong, and for Harvey, it must have been a relief that the problem could be solved surgically, regardless of what the operation cost him in rehab months. There was that initial scare of not being able to feel his pitching hand for three days, the result of a lingering nerve block from the surgery. But it’s ironic that it required one of his ribs to be removed for Harvey to feel whole again.
“I think his confidence is where it should be, where Matt Harvey generally is,” Warthen said. “I think he’s become a better teammate, and a better person in a lot of ways. He’s been fantastic this spring. His teammates would say the same.”
Those are important differences, and we’re not sure how they’ll manifest themselves during Sunday’s start or in the weeks and months ahead. But it sounds as if Harvey is forging a solid foundation for the upcoming season to replace the pedestal that cracked beneath him a year ago, ripped apart by frustration and self-doubt.
The Mets hope this Harvey 3.0 pitches a lot like the All-Star version from 2013. Or even the post-Tommy John survivor who resurrected his career in 2015 and nearly became a World Series hero before Game 5 unraveled for him.
Truth is, the Mets aren’t sure what to expect from Harvey.
“What we’ve tried to do in the offseason and over the course of the spring so far is to allow events to unfold before making judgments,” general manager Sandy Alderson said. “He hasn’t pitched in a game yet. Everything we’ve seen has been positive. I think we’re just being cautious and not trying to put too much on him or any of the other guys that are coming back until it’s warranted.
“I think we still have a few weeks to figure out where everything stands, but we’re excited about it. We’re looking forward to seeing him pitch, confident that he’s back and will be effective. But rather than presume that, we’re going to watch like everyone else.”
Everyone will be watching Sunday because Harvey is on the mound. And because he’s been away for a while, it makes us want to watch even more.
A Darker Knight?
Matt Harvey is attempting to come back from his second major surgery in the span of three years. The first was Tommy John, which prematurely ended his 2013 season, and now he’s returning from thoracic outlet syndrome, the condition that cut Harvey short after 17 starts last year. There’s no telling how he’ll be affected this time, but here’s the breakdown of Harvey’s career before and after TJ surgery.
GSIP ERAK/9 WHIP
Pre-TJ 36 126.96.36.1999.9 0.985
Post-TJ 46 282 IP 3.41 8.4 1.167