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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Mets' rotation needs the best version of Steven Matz

Mets starting pitcher Steven Matz delivers in a

Mets starting pitcher Steven Matz delivers in a simulated game during an MLB summer training session at Citi Field on Monday, July 6, 2020. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Think back to spring training. You know, the first one.

March. Port St. Lucie.

Feels like a decade ago, right? I’m old enough to remember that time when Steven Matz briefly appeared in a flickering trade rumor involving the Yankees, Oh, and the spring debate over Matz having to compete for the fifth starter’s spot, with the newly-acquired Michael Wacha.

Both didn’t make much sense to me then, even before the world was flipped upside down by the coronavirus. And now, nearly four months later, Matz returns to Citi Field as perhaps the most rave-worthy Met, short of the Phoenix-like rebirth of the club’s notorious boar-wrangler, Yoenis Cespedes.

But unlike Yo, the former Ward Melville star doesn’t have any baggage to shed. All Matz does is show up every year looking more fit than the previous one, leading us to believe that great things are possible. Right up to the point where he turns out to be merely good. Or somewhat adequate.

This season, however, the Mets’ rotation needs premium Matz for the intense 60-game sprint, and there is a current vacancy in the No. 2 spot, with Noah Syndergaard on the shelf rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Matz figures to have Marcus Stroman ahead of him on the depth chart — call us homers for giving Long Island's own the edge over Rick Porcello — but this 60-game sprint is a unique opportunity for the enigmatic lefthander to really shine over a relatively small sample size.

Matz doesn’t have to lock it down for 30 starts. We’re only talking around 10 or so, a chance to laser-focus. And for someone who’s had trouble at times harnessing his immense talent, maybe Matz can benefit from the wild scenario, especially after his rigorous efforts to stay in pitching shape during the shutdown.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Matz basically just continued his spring training regimen near his home in Nashville, where he gathered with a dozen other major-leaguers to ride out the coronavirus freeze. By his own account, Matz threw to hitters once a week, at four innings a pop, a schedule that apparently has him peaking at the right time for this quickie three-week summer camp.

After a polished Matz struck out the first three Mets he faced in Monday’s three-inning stint, Jacob deGrom gushed that the ball “was exploding out of his hand.” Matz is back to relying more on his curve, thanks to some tutorials with new pitching coach Jeremy Hefner, and if that’s a consistent weapon, his confidence should soar.

“If I'm trying to put away, and I'm leaving the curve ball up in the zone, that's obviously where you get hurt,” Matz said Wednesday during a Zoom call with reporters. “So I think that's the biggest thing is just really executing that curveball. Even if it wasn't the nastiest curveball  just placement more than anything was more important.”

And what would a conversation about Matz be without bringing up that personal curse of the One Bad Inning. Glance at Matz’s splits and the number that always leaps off the page is that career 6.50 ERA for the first inning (6.21 last season). It’s a mental hiccup that’s dogged Matz ever since the Mets picked him in the second round of the 2009 draft. The fact that he’s still getting tripped up that way speaks to how difficult it’s been to fix, and at age 29, Matz is another year wiser in terms of tackling the issue.

“I don't really have one thing to put my finger on,” Matz said. “I think if I had to say one thing, it’s kind of when stuff starts going wrong it tends to speed up on you out there. You try to make a better pitch instead of just trusting what you have and all the work you put in and not try to do anything more.

“Most of the time, less is more for me. So just learning that, learning to just be consistent with my stuff, and not try to add to anything. Just execute a pitch, instead of trying to make anything better than it is — because that's usually ends up being a negative result.”

How strange would it be if this bizarro season turns out to be the landmark moment when Matz figures it out? And by the time he motors through the regular season, and possibly October, the Mets will be craving more Matz in 2021, which is his last year in Flushing before free agency. That scenario is very possible, if not plausible, based on what we’re hearing (and seeing) from Matz so far.

“Let’s say we’re in a good place,” manager Luis Rojas said.

Matz put himself there, as he usually does, with diligent preparation. Now it’s a matter of staying, and getting better, when the Mets really could use the best version of him.

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