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Steven Matz kept away from Yankees . . . could ex-Met be hidden gem for Blue Jays?

Steven Matz pitches for Blue Jays earlier in

Steven Matz pitches for Blue Jays earlier in spring training. He didn't face the Yankees, as scheduled, on Sunday.    Credit: AP/Frank Franklin II

DUNEDIN, Fla.

I was looking forward to seeing the 2021 Steven Matz, Canadian version, face the Yankees on Sunday at TD Ballpark.

The Blue Jays, unfortunately, had other ideas.

Just as they did with ace Hyun-Jin Ryu earlier this month, the Jays played keep-away from the Yankees with a rotation member, preferring to shield Matz from the AL East rival.

Instead, we got two of Toronto’s top pitching prospects, former first-rounder (11th overall) Alek Monoah and Simeon Woods Richardson, whom you may remember as one of the arms the Mets sent to the Jays for Marcus Stroman at the 2019 trade deadline.

As for Matz, he was sent to the development complex up the road (no media permitted) to throw four innings of a simulated game. Too bad, really.

And whom were the Jays hiding him from, truthfully? Few actual Yankees. Most of the roster had the Sunday off, with manager Aaron Boone bringing only two players considered regular starters: Luke Voit and Clint Frazier.

Matz’s Sunday performance, in the more low-key, less formal surroundings, seemed to be on par with what he’s been doing throughout spring training for the Blue Jays: 60 pitches, 15 batters faced, seven strikeouts, zero walks.

"He was outstanding," Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. "Really, really, really good."

Three reallys. That’s quite the endorsement, and with Matz now solidifying his spot in the middle of the Toronto rotation, he’s going to be a very intriguing pitcher to track this season, especially when he finally does go head-to-head with the Yankees.

The mystery surrounding the former Ward Melville star has left me curious to see if there’s any difference this March. Before Sunday’s game, one American League scout mentioned to me that if his club had known Matz would come so cheaply in a trade, they would have put in a bid for him, impressed as he’s been with the lefthander’s performance in spring training.

In fact, the scouting consensus was that Matz needed a change of scenery, if only to get out from basically pitching in his Long Island backyard. Montoyo echoed that sentiment after Sunday’s game. And so far, that prediction has rung true.

Before Sunday, in two official Grapefruit League starts, Matz pitched a total of five scoreless innings, allowing two hits, striking out six and issuing zero walks.

"He’s been lights-out, throwing strikes with all his pitches," Montoyo said. "The arm is there. We all know that."

It happens (for parts of) spring training every year. Matz returns healthy and strong and has never looked better. Then the regular season gets underway and he becomes his own worst enemy.

That frustration ultimately prompted the Mets to deal him to the Blue Jays in late January for three minor-league pitchers, one of whom they’ve already shipped to another team. It was a marginal package to save the (non-guaranteed) $5.2 million Matz was due for 2021 after they decided to tender him a contract a month earlier.

We’ll see how much hiding Matz will matter once the regular season begins. As a Met, he was 1-3 with a 6.83 ERA in seven games (five starts) against the Yankees, including 0-2 with an 8.25 ERA in the Bronx. But it’s entirely possible the Blue Jays have unlocked something in Matz that the Flushing crew couldn’t.

Toronto should be a handful for the Yankees, and with that divisional dogfight in mind, avoiding free looks against the Jays’ starters is smart at this time of year. They will open in the Bronx on April 1 and play each other six times in the season’s first two weeks. No point in getting too familiar now.

But the Yankees didn’t get all secretive Sunday with Deivi Garcia, who was brought to Dunedin to face the Jays’ "A’’ lineup. Odds are Garcia will win the fifth starter’s job out of spring training, so it’s possible he’ll face Toronto in that early window. He’s someone who’s still competing for a spot, though, and the Yankees weren’t going to have Garcia stay in Tampa for a simulated game when they still need to see him handle the real thing.

"Some guys don’t really care and want to get their work in and want to do it in a game," Boone said. "Some guys have no issue pitching in a sim game on a back field to build up their pitch count. So it’s a conversation we have with the individual and then ultimately make a decision."

Garcia allowed one hit and one unearned run in three innings, with two walks and a pair of strikeouts. Will he have that same success against the likes of George Springer, Vlad Guerrero Jr. et al a few weeks from now? Garcia has to make the team first.

"I try to give the best I have every time out," he said through his interpreter. "If you keep doing that, little by little, you can state your case."

As for Matz, he already seems to be making his statement, loud and clear . . . even if we didn’t get to see him on Sunday.

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