PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
It was accidental Sunday morning that Steven Matz wound up pinned against the brick wall outside the Mets’ clubhouse, where he fielded questions about the elbow discomfort that scratched him from Monday’s start.
But the uncomfortable locale was a fitting metaphor for his increasingly tenuous standing in this rotation, a situation caused by frequent injuries that are testing the team’s patience with the former Ward Melville ace.
Bottom line, the distance between what the Mets dream for Matz and the reality of what he actually is capable of giving them stretched even further with this latest episode of elbow tenderness, which is very likely to land him on the disabled list to start the season.
Yet another sudden malady, seemingly out of nowhere, raised the same familiar question: What good is Matz’s elite-level talent if he can’t be trusted to pitch on a consistent basis? Unfortunately, the Mets know the answer.
“It’s worrisome that he continues to be injured off and on,” Sandy Alderson said. “That’s the difficulty. We don’t think it’s serious. On the other hand, we have to be able to, with starting pitchers, to rely on them every five days. We’re not sure exactly where this is going to take us.”
Alderson doesn’t have a great poker face when it comes to hiding his frustration, and the general manager had to be ticked off by the timing. Monday’s start was supposed to be Matz’s final lengthy tuneup before the regular season. But now it looks as if he will be pushed to the back of the line, certainly behind Robert Gsellman, with Seth Lugo and Zack Wheeler still wrestling over the No. 5 role.
The Mets weren’t happy that Matz alerted them to this elbow thing as he tried to push through it Wednesday against the Marlins, who roughed him up for five runs and eight hits in four innings, giving him a 4.26 ERA in four starts. But with the growing pressure on Matz because of his checkered medical history, it’s a Catch-22. If he tells the Mets he’s hurting, he gets ripped as injury-prone or soft. If he says nothing, pitches anyway and gets bombed, he’s the bad guy for not speaking up.
What’s a 25-year-old kid to do?
Matz said multiple times Sunday that he isn’t concerned about the elbow condition and plans to test it Monday by long-tossing. But the damage has been done. Once he took himself out of the rotation this late in spring training, the Mets aren’t going to be in a hurry to put him back. Not when they have appealing replacements. How can anyone be sure this won’t sideline him again days or weeks from now?
“I don’t know what it’s related to,” said Matz, who had a bone spur removed from the elbow last October. “I talked to the doctor right away just to see his thoughts and he just said this stuff can happen when you’re coming back from surgery.”
Without a specific diagnosis, other than the doctor’s assurance that the all-important ligament is fine, it’s not so easy for Matz to merely take a few days off and return as if nothing’s gone wrong. And the Mets don’t intend to wait for him.
With two split-squad games Monday, Lugo and Wheeler each will get a start. Collins plans to ride the bus to Jupiter to watch Wheeler, who is scheduled to throw 80 pitches.
With Matz in limbo, the Mets could put both Lugo and Wheeler on the Opening Day roster, then decide how to use them. Or Lugo could be put in Matz’s fifth spot and Wheeler could be left behind to polish up in extended spring training. Either way, the Mets are prepared to move on from Matz for the immediate future.
“We’re extremely disappointed with his status right now,” Terry Collins said. “We had a backup plan and we’re going to turn to that backup plan. We’re just lucky we have some pretty good pitching.”
Notice that Collins referred to Matz’s “status” — not his injury, or bad break. For the first time, the Mets appear less focused on fixing Matz than simply deciding on his replacement.