WASHINGTON - Back in February, long before Matt Harvey's first Grapefruit League start, Bryce Harper gushed about his Nationals adding Max Scherzer, the $210-million man, to an already stacked rotation.
"Where's my ring?" Harper said at the time.
As in fast-forward through the regular season, October and -- this year -- the first few days of November. Harper, the Nationals' brash young rightfielder, looked at Scherzer and figured winning the World Series was a done deal.
On Thursday, however, Harper got to see Harvey again from 60 feet, 6 inches, and it was a bit too close for comfort. Harper struck out three times, flailing at serious heat on the final pitch: 97, 97 and 96.
"He's going to be a Cy Young one day and everybody knows that," Harper said. "He's one of the toughest at-bats I've ever had."
Know what else Harvey is? He's a conversation-changer, the Mets' immovable object, their irresistible force.
For 17 months, during his methodical rehab from Tommy John surgery, we talked about Harvey in abstract terms. The expectations were always couched with the added disclaimer, "if healthy."
Even during spring training, when Harvey made his Florida competition look like high school players on Easter break, we had to remind ourselves those starts were only practice. They didn't count.
But not anymore. As soon as Harvey took the mound Thursday, the Nationals -- along with the rest of the NL East -- were put on notice. This was real, and it was spectacular.
Six scoreless innings, nine strikeouts and one walk in the backyard of the division bully.
The Nationals rolled out Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg for this opening series -- and the Mets won two of three, with Harvey dropping the hammer in the clincher.
On Harvey Day, things get flipped over. The Hunter becomes The Hunted.
"Well, right now, we're chasing the Mets," Nationals manager Matt Williams said. "I'll tell you that."
The Mets picked the right time to visit D.C. with difference-makers Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth and Denard Span all on the shelf. But even after they return, Harvey still will be here. And the Mets, a team short on confidence in recent years, like their chances against anyone when Harvey is pitching. The duel with Strasburg turned out to be no contest.
"I'm glad he's out there," Terry Collins said. "But we're talking about winning pennants here, and when you've got a No. 1 guy that you can run out there, and if we give him two or three runs a game and he's going to win 20 games, we've got that animal.
"He's going to change the dynamic of what our club is all about."
That's a lot to pin on one guy, especially a pitcher, who sees the field once every five days. But Harvey, with an ego the size of the Unisphere, is a massive enough presence to handle it. He welcomes the attention, embraces the pressure, wears it like one of his favorite John Varvatos suits.
And with Harvey acting as frontman, the Mets don't look small-time. They don't feel like a team that hasn't been to the playoffs since 2006 or one that has finished below .500 for six straight seasons. The Mets know that Harvey is as good as anyone opposing him that night -- and, most of the time, much better.
We posed that question to Sandy Alderson after the Mets' 6-3 win, a victory Harvey said they needed to get. For all the hype about the Nationals' vaunted pitching staff, is it possible that the Mets hold the division's ace, even coming off Tommy John surgery?
Alderson is thrilled about Harvey's stellar return, but he wasn't going to giddily step into that one. "I like our guy," he said, smiling.
As GM, it's Alderson's job to see the big picture, and he notices the "edge" the Mets take on when Harvey is around. It's not a media creation. It's legit, and it extends beyond the mound. On Thursday, it started with the first guitar riffs of Aerosmith's "Back in the Saddle" that Harvey blared in the clubhouse before his return.
"Waking up every day knowing you have a great chance of winning that day is a really good feeling," Travis d'Arnaud said. "And Matt gives us that feeling."
For the Mets, it's great to have that back, too.