As Bryce Harper worked a 2-0 count against Steven Matz, already 102 pitches deep into his start, in the eighth inning, Terry Collins saw a pivotal moment in the making. He had already decided to allow Matz to face Harper in this tense situation -- up two runs with a runner on base -- rather than call for Jerry Blevins -- the team's resident Harper-stopper. These are the moments the Mets would need Matz for in the future, he thought to himself, so why not test him now....
On the bench sitting next to Collins, Dan Warthen, the pitching coach, was also curious to see how and if Matz would wriggle himself out of this trouble. The Mets, despite the abundance of pitching talent on their team, are too short on assurances right now with their staff. Matt Harvey is going through the worst and most tumultuous period of his career. Jacob deGrom is prospering despite the lack of his usual repertoire and velocity.
In Matz, however, the Mets have now gained a bedrock. His next two pitches to Harper were a microcosm -- a fastball for a strike and then a 93 mph sinker that elicited a meek ground ball. That's how Matz's latest gem -- eight innings, seven strikeouts and just four hits allowed -- was completed and how the Mets rode that dynamic left arm to a 2-0 win over the Nationals.
While the Mets have found themselves seemingly at odds-end trying to figure out the Harvey riddle, trying to find out how a star in his prime is now in a 6.08 ERA hole and how he'll dig himself out of it, Matz has been a saving grace that can allow them to weather the storm.
His development into a bonafide ace of his own has given the pitching staff a boost and room for Harvey to work out his issues and to mitigate his struggles. If Harvey cannot be counted on to be dominant every fifth day, the Mets now have Matz in his place. Such is the benefit of the collection of arms the Mets have brought together -- that when one All-Star loses his way, another with similar pedigree can grow to take his spot.
"I think he thinks he belongs here and I think he knows he's part of a very, very good pitching staff," Collins said after the game. "There's a lot that we count on him when he goes out there and he can pick his game up. … He's not afraid of the challenge."
That Matz is this good is not really a surprise. He was a superlative pitching prospect when he debuted last summer and performed well thereafter. But he has been undone by a series of injuries and bumps that have kept him from a regular turn in the rotation. His start Wednesday came shortly after he missed one because of a barking left elbow.
But this is the evolution of a 24-year-old who is finding success. Since taking a clobbering in his first start of the season, Matz has a 1.13 ERA in seven starts, with 49 strikeouts in 48 innings, and has won them all. And the performances are no fluke. His FIP for the year nearly matches with his ERA and his peripheral stats all point to improvement -- higher strikeout rate, lower walk rate, WHIP and line drive rate. The numbers also reflect his mindset.
"I definitely feel like I've come pretty far," he said of the last year. "But last year around this time I was really in a groove too. I do feel like I'm a better pitcher but it's tough to say looking back."
If Matz continues to pitch near this level, it gives them room and time for Harvey to try to find a way out of his swoon. With Matz, deGrom and Noah Syndergaard they have three frontline pitchers actually performing to their capabilities. And with the usual fare from Bartolo Colon, Harvey becomes the defacto fifth starter for the club. For most teams, the fifth starter usually is a question mark and right now that's the case with the Mets.
Even without Harvey, the Mets' staff has the fifth-best ERA of any in baseball. They sit just a half-game behind the Nationals in the N.L. East and just 4.5 games off the Cubs for the best record in baseball. It's not to say the Mets can do without Harvey at his usual level, it's just that for now they've been able to withstand it.
At this point, team brass will continue to let him try to pitch himself out of his misery. He's set to start Monday, as normal, and despite the poor results again Tuesday, Collins and assistant general manager John Ricco said they saw bits of data they found to be optimistic.
"This guy is too big a piece to write him off, to put in the bullpen, where you gotta pick and choose when you want to use him," Collins said. "This is the big leagues, so we're going to certainly go about it that way."
For now, the Mets have Matz pitching like an ace and that's good enough. While Harvey's struggles get the headlines and Syndergaard's dominance hogs the positive attention for the Mets, Matz can continue to twirl shutout innings like he did against the Nationals. Everything else will eventually follow.
"He's going to get plenty of publicity," Collins said. "He's making a name for himself in this league and it's going to get around fast."