PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — The Mets chose to write off Friday’s implosion by Steven Matz as one breezy afternoon at First Data Field, where the hitter-friendly winds did not mix favorably with his penchant for teeing up pitches at the top of the strike zone in an 11-3 loss to the Nationals.
The loud series of events, however, was a bit jarring. Washington took turns at what amounted to a longest-drive contest, hitting four homers off Matz in two innings and scoring eight runs before Mickey Callaway threw in the towel.
As ugly as this was, it’s only spring training. We’re talking about practice here. But the larger issue with Matz was his inability to self-correct the mechanical flaw that led to this disaster. He kept throwing high pitches and the Nationals kept hammering them, over and over.
Adam Eaton opened the game by crushing a 74-mph hanging curve over the leftfield wall for an opposite-field homer. With two outs in the first, Yan Gomes hit a three-run shot off a perfect hitter’s fastball, middle of the plate, about belt-high. The next inning, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman went back-to-back, jumping on pitches that couldn’t have been more perfectly aimed at the barrel of their bats.
The good news? Matz won’t face Washington during the opening weekend in D.C. That honor belongs to Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler. But as we sit here in mid-March, Matz is the runaway weak link in an otherwise stellar rotation, and Friday’s upsetting outing only confirmed that.
We understand it’s the Grapefruit League. But deGrom, Syndergaard, Wheeler and Jason Vargas have a combined 2.31 ERA in 46 2⁄3 innings, with six homers allowed, 13 walks and 50 strikeouts.
Matz has a 10.97 ERA in four starts, a span of 10 2⁄3 innings, with four walks and eight strikeouts. He has served up six homers.
Once Matz’s day was over, he huddled with pitching coach Dave Eiland to go over the flaw, which was diagnosed as faulty hand positioning.
“I’ve been here before and I know I can correct it,” Matz said. “It’s good that this stuff happens now, especially now that hitters have their timing down. You’re not just beating guys with fastballs up. They’re letting you know when you keep that ball up that they’re going to be able to get their barrels to it. It’s a really good reminder. I’ve got to work in between starts on just getting that ball down in the zone and pounding it down. That’s where I’m most effective.”
It’s strange to hear that Matz would need a refresher course on that, a subject that’s typically covered in Pitching 101. The former Ward Melville star will turn 28 in May and is about to start his fifth season in the majors. As Callaway pointed out, injuries have limited him to 71 starts in that time, but he had 30 last season and pitched pretty well to a 3.97 ERA.
Matz is an experienced pitcher with a fair degree of success at this level, and making in-game adjustments is something he needs to improve on. He wasn’t able to do that Friday against the Nationals’ “A’’ lineup, but Callaway hopes Matz can show progress in that area by the time his 2019 debut takes place in Miami next month.
“It’s his first year that he’s been able to come into spring training and just really work on stuff and try to get better, so I’m not overly concerned about it,” Callaway said. “There comes a time, though, in spring training, where you got to get some consistency going into the season so you can get on a good roll and start the season the right way. I know they’re going to work diligently to get that spot.”
The results may not matter yet, but Matz could use a confidence-builder before the season opens. So could the Mets. The rotation is the team’s undisputed strength, and it would have been helpful to see Matz be something more than the liability he was Friday, regardless of which way the wind was blowing.