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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Pitching gem in mix won’t change Mets’ formula

Steven Matz #32 of the New York Mets

Steven Matz #32 of the New York Mets pitches in the first inning against the Atlanta Braves at Citi Field on Wednesday, May 4, 2016. Credit: Jim McIsaac

For nearly eight innings, Steven Matz made it look too easy. Catch, throw. Catch, throw. He dispatched the Braves with robotic efficiency. But after Wednesday’s masterful performance in the Mets’ 8-0 win at Citi Field, we couldn’t help but wonder: what if?

Let’s say Matz doesn’t leave that 1-and-2 sinker up to Jhoulys Chacin, the Braves’ starting pitcher, whose ground-ball single in the third inning, with two outs, was their only hit until the eighth. Imagine if Matz still had the no-hitter intact, and got within four outs of finishing it, but was sitting on 110 pitches or more.

What then? That same scenario, with any of his young starters, is something that probably keeps Terry Collins awake at night. And as the manager watched Matz plow through the pitiful Braves, eventually striking out eight over 7 2/3 scoreless innings, one thought wouldn’t leave his mind.

Thank goodness for Jhoulys Chacin.

“We got lucky,” Collins said.

You read that right. The overriding sentiment was relief, not disappointment. Later, with two outs in the eighth inning, Erick Aybar tacked on another single by looping a base hit over the leaping reach of Asdrubal Cabrera. And with Matz at 106 pitches, that eliminated any chance of him going the distance as Collins quickly replaced him with Jim Henderson.

Would it have been fun to see Matz go for the shutout? Absolutely. A pitching gem like that is a lost art these days, a throwback to a time when front offices didn’t have to fear losing their most precious arms to Tommy John surgery. Or weren’t as consumed by the possibility.

But now? Pitch counts no longer are considered guidelines — they are the law of the land. Heading into Wednesday’s start, his fifth this season, Matz was on a 110-pitch leash, and nothing was going to persuade Collins to veer from that plan, despite how effortlessly Matz handled the Braves.

Because when it comes to the Mets’ rotation, Collins has to be more concerned with respecting history than making it. Matz already has a UCL-replacement on his resume, as do Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom, so the Mets believe they must be extra-careful with that group. The same goes for Zack Wheeler, when he returns from TJ rehab. Noah Syndergaard has avoided surgery, but the freakish power his arm generates requires close scrutiny as well.

Collins was well aware of what happened last month, when the Dodgers’ Ross Stripling and the Marlins’ Adam Conley both were pulled in the eighth inning with a no-hit bid intact because of high pitch counts. It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see that also happen with the Mets, who have a rotation capable of throwing a no-no on any given day — but are fiercely protective of the future.

“There’s a big picture involved here,” Collins said. “And the big picture right now with us, with the expectations that are with this club, is to make sure they stay healthy.”

And this generation of pitchers seems fine with the new directive. It wasn’t all that long ago that starters would fight a manager to stay on the mound. But this group has been conditioned to think of their outings as 100-pitch assignments and tend to respond accordingly.

“I could tell by where my pitches were going and the sharpness of them, that I was probably getting a little tired,” Matz said. “Out there you don’t really feel it. It’s something they notice in the dugout. I definitely understand that.”

There was no drama this time. The Mets were up by a large margin, and Matz walked off with another impressive line that moved him to 4-0 with a 0.67 ERA in the four starts since his April 11 opener. But at least one Met with a great view of Wednesday’s performance felt that Matz would have soldiered on if the no-no still was in play.

“I tell you this, if it could have been a no-hitter, he might have been good to go,” said catcher Rene Rivera. “The excitement of knowing that, it changes everything up.”

If Matz keeps pitching like this, we won’t be talking hypotheticals next time. And these decisions, for everyone involved, will get much harder.

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