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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Change of scenery has worked out well for LI's Steven Matz

Steven Matz of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches

Steven Matz of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches during the 1st inning of the game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on April 17, 2021 in Kansas City. Credit: Getty Images/Jamie Squire

Say what you want about win totals, but Steven Matz became the major-league leader in victories Friday night, improving to 4-0 as the Blue Jays topped the Rays at Tropicana Field.

Yes, that Steven Matz. The former Met. The former Ward Melville star.

The very same homegrown lefthander whom the Mets traded to the Blue Jays in January for a trio of minor-league pitchers: Sean Reid-Foley, Yennsy Diaz and Josh Winckowski.

The trade came a little more than a week after the Mets fired general manager Jared Porter and the same day Zack Scott was elevated to fill the role, with the title "interim" attached. But new president Sandy Alderson — someone very familiar with Matz during his previous GM tenure — still was the architect of baseball operations and had been in the process of trying to move Matz since the club tendered him a contract worth $5.2 million in early December.

There had been some debate about whether the Mets should even invest that money in Matz for 2021, and they were happy to dump that salary on the Blue Jays only six weeks later — not long after the blockbuster deal with Cleveland for Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco.

But the point here is not to second-guess the Mets. It’s hard to criticize their decision when even Matz himself, on numerous occasions, has said a change of scenery — and specifically getting away from pitching in his own backyard --- probably was the right move at the right time for his career. He did so again this past week.

"At first I wasn’t sure what to expect going into a new organization. I had been with the Mets since I was a kid, since I was 18 years old. Now I’m going to be 30 this year," Matz said, according to The Athletic. "But when I got into the organization, it really was a breath of fresh air. It’s almost like it energizes you a little bit."

Matz had trouble staying healthy at times for the Mets, but what probably confounded them the most was his habit of beating himself up on the mound. If an inning began to unravel, so did Matz, and it would become difficult for him to grab control of the reins.

Was that symptomatic of his New York surroundings and the additional pressure he faced as a Long Island local hero? That certainly could be part of the equation. Matz had his stretches of pitching very well in a Mets uniform — he’s a skilled lefthander who throws 97, after all — and Friday night was an example of him clearing that mental hurdle, potentially helped by wearing a Jays cap now.

Matz walked two and struck out seven in five innings, allowing all three of his earned runs on a home run by Randy Arozarena in the fifth. But it was his composure in the fourth that seemed to be the best indicator of how he may have conquered those previous issues in Flushing.

Twice Matz thought he had the third out, but he was thwarted by a pair of Jays errors, one a poor throw by third baseman Joe Panik and the other a mishandled grounder by shortstop Bo Bichette. In past years, under similar duress with the Mets, that could have led to a visibly upset Matz coming undone, either losing the strike zone or teeing up a game-changing home run.

But not Friday night. On this occasion, Matz did get that elusive final out — albeit on a hard liner to centerfield — to strand runners at second and third and hold Toronto’s 4-3 lead through the fifth despite Arozarena’s threatening blast.

It marked the first time in four starts that Matz didn’t pitch at least six innings and allowed more than one run — his ERA coming in was 1.47 — but there was value in what he showed through that adversity.

"I know those guys are out there trying as hard as they can," Matz told Sportsnet postgame. "They want to make the plays. So it's part of the game, it happens and you definitely don't want to make it any worse. I know they want to make those plays for me, so the goal is to show that I'm going to do the best I can to pick them up."

Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo complimented Matz’s "even-keeled" demeanor and his ability to squash any chance of frustration getting the better of him.

"The reason why he got out of trouble is because he didn't panic, he didn't show anybody up. He just said, 'OK, I'll get the next guy, OK, I'll get the next guy,' " Montoyo said, according to Sportsnet. "And that's what he did. A lot of times you see pitchers when that happens and they get mad and now they lose concentration and it becomes a double or whatever after that. Matz did an outstanding job to minimize damage after the errors."

That's great for Matz and the Blue Jays.

As for the Mets, well, maybe Matz just wasn’t destined to get the fairy-tale ending here. Sometimes it’s no more complicated than that.

RIP Tom Robson

Tom Robson, the former Mets hitting coach and trusted lieutenant to Bobby Valentine on two continents, died this past week at the age of 75.

Robson played two seasons in the majors after being drafted by the Mets (50th round) in 1967 and later served on three coaching staffs under Valentine — the Rangers (1986-92), the Mets (1997-2000, 2002) and the Chiba Lotte Marines (1995, 2004).

"As a hitting coach, Robbie was ahead of his times," Valentine said in a statement. "He used kinetics and launch angle before anyone else did."

Robson, as a Valentine loyalist, also found himself in the crosshairs of then-Mets general manager Steve Phillips, who fired him twice and rehired him twice as part of his ongoing feud with the manager.

50th for Flood

With MLB and the Players Association starting negotiations on a new CBA this past week, it’s notable that Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of Curt Flood’s final game, sparking new efforts to get one of the founding fathers of baseball’s free agency considered for the Hall of Fame. The St. Louis-based apparel company, 108 Stitches, has created an online petition at Change.org, as well as a social-media campaign at #FloodTheHall and a Curt Flood information page on its website (108stitches.com).

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