John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
If you want a reason to believe the Mets have a big run in them over the next few months, I'm here to tell you that nobody in the majors has a better No. 4 starter than Steven Matz right now.
I know, I know, that won't mean much if Nos. 1, 2 and 3 don't raise their games to meet expectations of dominance, but presuming that Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler's best days are ahead of them this season, Matz's success could indeed prove meaningful.
In any case, the point is: Who saw this coming, anyway?
Or, to put it more bluntly, after the travails of the last couple of seasons, who wasn't ready to concede that Matz was never going to live up to the hype that accompanied his early heroics in 2015, largely because it seemed he would always be too fragile, physically and mentally? Yet 10 starts into his fourth full season, the Long Island lefty seemingly has returned to the form that made him the last of the Met phenoms during the remarkable few years that produced Matt Harvey, Wheeler, deGrom and Syndergaard.
Or close enough, anyway.
In fact, if you don't count his mother of all clunkers, in which he failed to get an out in Philadelphia on April 16, Matz's ERA is 2.49, which would be good enough for fourth in the National League.
As it is, after he mostly shut down the mighty Dodgers on Tuesday night, giving up two runs over six innings, his actual ERA is 3.55, which is the best among the Mets' starters.
That's the good news/bad news part of the story, of course, because this team isn't going anywhere unless deGrom finds something resembling his Cy Young form, Syndergaard shakes the mediocrity out of his game and Wheeler eliminates the bad inning here or there that has kept him from being great this season.
At least for now, however, Matz's resurgence is helping keep the Mets afloat, and his performance against the Dodgers offered the most compelling evidence yet that he can be one of the better lefthanders in the majors.
Consider Mickey Callaway's succinct assessment after Matz's strong start in the 7-3 win against the Dodgers:
"That's the best I've ever seen Matz," Callaway told reporters in LA. "From pitch one, he had a different look on his face."
Ok, let's be honest, it can be difficult to sort out the legitimate analysis from the managerial pap that too often defines Callaway's post-game press conferences, but if you watched the game you couldn't help but think his observation was on point.
Most noticeably, Matz pitched with confidence, attacking a Dodgers offense that leads the National League in runs scored rather than nibbling around the plate in a way that would have elevated his pitch count.
As it was, Matz threw 93 pitches to get through six innings, and probably could have gone another inning if Callaway hadn't decided to pinch-hit for him with the game tied 2-2 in the top of the seventh.
"You could tell he was feeling good about his stuff," was the way a major league scout put it. "He pitched inside with his fastball and he didn't shy away from throwing strikes with his off-speed stuff even when he was behind in the count.
"His change-up is improved this year and his curveball had a sharp break, which tells me his elbow is feeling good. That's a heck of a lineup that he pretty much dominated, except for that hanger he threw to (Cody) Bellinger. And the Dodgers have been tough on lefties. That's probably one of the better-pitched games against them this season."
Matz himself said the change-up has been a vital pitch for him this season, keeping hitters off-balance, but no less significant, he has used his curveball more since returning from a brief injured-list stint to address nerve irritation in his elbow.
As SNY noted in its post-game show, in fact, the lefthander's curveball usage is at 22.9 percent in the three starts since his return, compared to 11.9 percent in his seven starts prior to the IL stint. And hitters are hitting .182 against the curve, compared to .333 in those pre-injury starts.
All of it adds up to Matz doing some of his best pitching since his earliest days as a Met, when he helped fuel the World Series run in 2015. Since then he has been nagged with elbow problems that damaged his confidence and perhaps contributed to his lack of poise during games at times.
All of it led to questions about his toughness, especially after Mets people raved about that very quality as he was climbing through the minors, with pitching coach Frank Viola at one point comparing Matz's big-game mentality to that of Madison Bumgarner.
Now, though, he is showing signs, as he turns 28 on Wednesday, of being the guy that Wally Backman, Matz's Triple-A manager, once incurred the wrath of then-GM Sandy Alderson for, for saying he thought the lefty was more equipped mentally for the big leagues than Syndergaard.
"Oh, I remember that," Backman, who now manages the Long Island Ducks, said by phone on Wednesday. "Hey, I'm just glad to see Matz have success. I watched him pitch against the Dodgers and that's the guy I remember from Triple-A.
"I always loved everything about the way he competed. He was never soft, I can tell you that. He's had to deal with arm problems, but he looks healthy now -- he went right after that Dodgers lineup. As long as his arm is OK, I don't see why he won't keep pitching like this."
If he does, there is hope for the Mets yet this season. As long as his more celebrated fellow starters join the party sooner than later.