PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Steven Matz’s lonely climb back into the discussion for the Mets’ Opening Day roster continued Tuesday morning at the six-pack bullpen adjacent to First Data Field. Dare we say Matz seemed slightly ahead of schedule, already progressing to a mound, but the workout itself remained fairly basic.
A few days earlier, Matz still was a stone-cold lock, the No. 4 starter slotted behind Matt Harvey. But Sandy Alderson’s surprise canceling of Matz’s final 80-pitch tuneup, because of his complaint of elbow tenderness, did more than just derail the Long Island lefty’s plans — it has knocked the Mets’ roster situation out of whack.
Many of the Mets’ decisions now, from how to use Robert Gsellman or where to put Seth Lugo — Flushing or Las Vegas — hinge on Matz’s health, and that’s something that may not be accurately determined until as late as Friday, when Army’s Black Knights visit Citi Field. For now, Matz gives the appearance of someone hustling to prove that he can get up to speed. Earning the Mets’ trust, however, may require more than the rest of this week.
For someone previously bothered by elbow discomfort, it was unusual to see Matz throw on back-to-back days, first from flat ground Monday and then the bullpen mound Tuesday. By the estimation of pitching coach Dan Warthen, his pupil looked OK, but Terry Collins is the one who keeps expressing some doubt.
“He was uncomfortable when he first started,” Collins said of Matz’s recovery. “Then he felt a little bit better. So we’re hoping that we’ll get a better idea of where he might be.”
Matz was unavailable after Tuesday’s side session, and seemed uncomfortable during previous conversations about the elbow issue. “I don’t want to overthink anything,” he said. But after watching his tutorials with Warthen the past two days, Matz appears to be getting plenty of new info to absorb. As Warthen has explained, he wants Matz to shorten his arm swing, thereby reducing the stress on his elbow, which already has been operated on twice.
That modified delivery is what Warthen was trying to imprint on Matz during Tuesday’s bullpen class, and that could be a tough technique to incorporate on the fly. Matz threw a few dozen pitches off the mound — a step forward from Monday — but the Mets need to evaluate him in another game situation.
They could potentially use Matz for Thursday’s exhibition against Triple-A Las Vegas at First Data Field, but it’s difficult to pencil him in for that until he shows up Wednesday and reports no issues. That’s a tough way to operate with a starting pitcher, never knowing about his availability until the proverbial last minute.
“We’ve got to get him on the mound,” Collins said. “We’ve got to see how it feels because we’ve certainly got to see how he comes out of it.”
Matz hasn’t pitched well this spring, giving up 16 hits in 12 2⁄3 innings while opponents knocked him around at a .327 clip. That happens in the Grapefruit League, and often isn’t anything to worry about — unless there’s a more nefarious reason behind it. That reason popped up a week ago when Matz first told the Mets of his elbow soreness, tried to pitch through it, then looked terrible doing so.
Alderson, though troubled by Matz’s frequent injuries, clung to the doctor’s assurances that his elbow remained structurally sound. But Warthen’s tinkering with Matz’s arm motion, at this late date in spring training, suggests there must be something going on. The other day, Warthen mentioned that Cardinals reliever Jonathan Broxton, who also dealt with recurring elbow problems, had a similar flaw in his delivery as what he’s witnessed from Matz lately. But can Matz process all this and show that he can pitch effectively by Friday?
There are safer options. Like using Gsellman as the No. 4 starter, picking either Lugo or Zack Wheeler for the No. 5 spot, then letting Matz iron out the kinks in extended spring. Collins seems to be leaning that way.
“It’s really tough to have that guy,” Collins said of Matz’s iffy situation. “Because of the workload early in the season, you’ve got to make sure you don’t kill your bullpen too early.”
Which could end up being a late arrival to Flushing for Matz.