NEW YORK — Citi Field is a beautiful ballpark that's lifeless most nights because the Mets just plain stink. Again. But every few games, it takes on a different personality. Beat writers and fans have hashtagged it “#HarveyDay” on Twitter because when Matt Harvey pitches, anything is possible.
The Mets played 50½ seasons before Johan Santana threw their first a no-hitter in a blanking of the Cardinals last June. Every night Harvey takes the mound, fans and media are counting outs. It's going to happen sooner or later.
I was in the house Friday night when Harvey was perfect for 4∏ innings against the Nationals before giving up an Ian Desmond home run. Harvey left after seven innings with a three-hitter, a 4-1 lead, 11 strikeouts and no walks. And he didn't win.
The bullpen imploded in what turned into a 6-4 loss. Harvey is 7-1 with nine no-decisions this year — seven of those coming at home. But despite the frustration of seeing wins frittered away, he's still atop basically every statistical category you can find and should be at the top of the All-Star Game starter list for the game here on July 16.
How bad has Harvey's luck been? Friday's game was the third time this season he struck out 10 or more batters without a walk and without a win — and the Elias Sports Bureau said the only pitcher who has done that since 1900 is Vida Blue of the 1971 Athletics. And that season, remember, Blue still went 24-8 and was the American League MVP.
“That's baseball,” Harvey said cryptically. “It happens. Today just happened to be one of those days.”
Harvey is a phenomenon in the Big Apple, the most exciting pitcher in baseball this season. When the count gets to two strikes, the scoreboards implore the fans to clap (as if they need prodding), and they respond like it's Dwight Gooden's rookie year at Shea Stadium in 1984. There was no way to see this coming as he spent most of last summer in Buffalo.
“When Matt pitches, there's a lot more energy in the ballpark than when he isn't,” said Mets manager Terry Collins, the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer. “And rightly so. There should be with what this guy has done. There's not a lot of people out there that can do what he's doing. Same with our players. They get fired up when he pitches, too, because of the energy in the park.”
Before he became a Sports Illustrated cover boy dubbed “The Dark Knight of Gotham,” Harvey was just a solid minor-league prospect. Right back to 2012, when he went 7-5 for the Bisons and threw solidly in the Triple-A All-Star Game at Coca-Cola Field.
Still, Harvey was hardly awesome in Buffalo. He had a 3.68 earned-run average in 20 starts for the Bisons — including a 4.37 mark in his eight starts in the Herd's pitcher-friendly park. While pitching for the Bisons, he had an ERA of 5.03 in the fourth inning of games and a whopping 7.94 in the sixth inning, with opponents batting .299 and .306, respectively, in those frames.
Those aren't numbers from when Harvey was, say, 20 years old in 2009. Those were from last year in Triple-A!
Scouts openly wondered if opposing hitters would figure him out the second and third times through the order. Basically every scout that came to town said Harvey projected to a No. 2 or No. 3 starter in a big-league rotation, but felt that Zack Wheeler was a higher ceiling prospect. So what's happened?
For one thing, Harvey was bored in the minor leagues. He's one of those rare players who needs the challenge of a new level. His last start in Buffalo, remember, he got shelled for six runs by the woeful Charlotte Knights. The Mets kept him here at least two weeks too long, if not more.
Harvey didn't talk about the big leagues here last season and has said nothing disparaging about his time in the minors this year. But it's a prevalent theory.
“He's definitely a competitor and different than anyone I've ever been around,” said Mets first baseman Josh Satin, who spent all season with Harvey in Buffalo. “He gets up for challenges. I don't know if you can say bored but you can see the passion that he has here. He gets a big strikeout on Desmond in the seventh and there's a huge fist pump. It's really hard to replicate that in the minor leagues. There's a lot of people here; it's a division rival. It's helped get his career going being on the big stage and he's thrived.”
Of course, there's also mechanics. Harvey's curveball has become devastating, with an average velocity just under 85 mph that contrasts with a fastball that comes in just over 97. He worked hard over the winter and has also unleashed an electric slider, something the Mets kept mostly under wraps in the minors to preserve his arm.
“The jump that he made from last year to this year is incredible,” Mets third baseman David Wright said last month. “The understanding of what it takes to be successful over a long period of time in this league just hit him at some point. Instead of going out there like a typical young pitcher and try to strike everybody out and you are out of the game in the fifth inning with 100 pitches, he's trying to pitch to contact. But a lot of times they still can't hit it.”
On two-strike fastballs over 98 mph this season, opposing hitters have completed at-bats against Harvey to go 0 for 34 with 25 strikeouts. That's amazing.
The curveball had Nationals hitters buckling their knees and looking silly all night.
“When I was back in the count, I was able to throw it for a strike when I needed to and I was able to bounce it for a strikeout,” Harvey said. “When that's working pretty good, it's definitely a nice weapon to have. It gives the hitter some different views in different zones and I've been able to use it pretty effectively.”
“The biggest difference I see is how unbelievable his offspeed stuff is throwing strikes,” Satin said. “He throws upper 90s, which is tough to hit anyway. But you can throw a 2-1 curveball or a 3-2 change-up like that, it's impossible to hit. Being able to throw anything for a strike at anytime and having a 98 mph fastball is devastating.”
Harvey entered Friday night with a 2.26 career ERA, the lowest since 1921 for any pitcher in his first 26 career starts. Harvey leads the National League this year in ERA (2.00) and strikeouts (132), and he is second in the majors in both categories. Harvey has held batters to a sickly, MLB-low on-base percentage (.230) and slugging percentage (.260).
One thing the Mets are starting to get wary of is Harvey's workload. He's at 117 innings in 17 starts. He went 169∑ last year between Buffalo and New York and it's unlikely the Mets will push much past 200.
“We've got to start being careful here,” said Collins. “This guy has thrown a lot of pitches and a lot of games and gotten us deep into a lot of games. We've got to be careful that we don't just let him loose and overuse him.”
“If they decide whatever innings limit is on their mind, then I have no say in it,” said Harvey. “All I'm worried about is taking the ball every fifth day. Whatever they decide is what they decide. It's something I can't worry about. All I can do is go out there and try to go nine and put zeroes up. … If they decide to shut me down, that's their call.”
Wheeler makes his home debut today for the Mets against the Nationals. More buzz at the park. Wheeler threw six shutout innings in his debut June 18 against the Braves, near his Atlanta-area home, but gave up four runs in 5∑ innings against the White Sox on Tuesday in Chicago.
The Mets figured out that he was tipping his offspeed pitches and had Wheeler making adjustments during a bullpen session Friday with pitching coach Dan Warthen.
“This is going to be a fun start for him,” Collins said. “There's a lot of people that have not seen him that have read about him, heard about him and talked about him. … It's great, what this game is fun for. We want to make him comfortable very, very fast because I plan on having him for a long time.”
The Jose Reyes Rehab Tour couldn't have gone any better for the Bisons. They sold more than 48,000 tickets — their most for a four-game series since 2001 — and club officials raved at how Reyes handled himself while he was here.
Not since former Cleveland catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. showed up in 1999 and immediately asked, “How far are we out of first place?” has a big-leaguer on rehab thrust himself into a stint with the Bisons like Reyes did.
Reyes handled every media request, both pre and postgame, with several reporters from Toronto coming down the QEW. He signed autographs freely and took pictures with fans inside and outside the stadium, right down to one with a small girl wearing a Bills jersey at the Buffalo airport on his way out of town. After his final game, he even sprang for a $1,200 bill to get steak and shrimp on the clubhouse spread for the team.
“We're glad to do it and if that moves the needle for these guys here, that's great,” Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos said, referring to the Bisons' attendance totals. “We love the affiliation, love the relationship. If I can come up with a stronger word than love, I would say it. It's just a great setup for us.”
And a huge departure from the Mets, who had most big rehabbers simply stay at Class A Brooklyn or perhaps go to Double-A Binghamton. Boo to that.