Home / Sports / Mets 1, White Sox 0: Matt Harvey Regains Form as Mets Defeat White Sox

Mets 1, White Sox 0: Matt Harvey Regains Form as Mets Defeat White Sox

He strode past the magic digits still painted on the grass — “1986”— and slapped hard on his glove with his hand. This was Matt Harvey’s way to congratulate himself on a job well done, and his message to all who doubted: Don’t worry about me.

This was the pitcher the Mets yearned to see, seven innings of angry fastballs and wicked off-speed stuff in a 1-0 victory over the Chicago White Sox at Citi Field on Monday. It was also the character they were desperate to welcome home.

The Mets had just spent the weekend celebrating their last group of champions, whose swagger still resonates three decades later. In Harvey, they had a player who embodies one part of that team’s spirit: He knows he is good, and burns to embarrass you while proving it. Losing that edge, it seemed, meant losing an essential piece of his soul.

Manager Terry Collins did not hesitate when asked later what most encouraged him about Harvey: “The emotion. The intensity. When he got out of that inning in the seventh, he was genuinely fired up, and that’s great to see.”

Collins could have cited Harvey’s fastball, which hit 98 miles an hour and was still humming at 96 in the seventh inning. He could have cited his stamina; this was the deepest Harvey had pitched since the final game of the World Series last November. He could have cited his precision use of the slider, changeup and curve.

But Collins baseball’s oldest manager, at 67 — seemed to speak for the sport. Baseball welcomes all types: the humble, the brainy, the quirky. But the swashbuckler is a special one. Think of Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez. Harvey’s record does not approach any of theirs, but his attitude and purpose match. His crisis of confidence before Monday deeply had unsettled the Mets.

“It’s tough going out there when you don’t feel comfortable,” Harvey said. “Finally being able to feel comfortable on the mound and execute pitches, it’s a little bit easier to get your confidence back.”

Yes, Harvey is speaking with the news media again. His refusal to do so after his last start, in Washington, became its own story. When someone asked him about it Monday, a Mets media relations official tried to deflect the question. Harvey, though, responded calmly.

He said he had been frustrated, and tired of answering the same kinds of questions after the same kinds of outings. He said it was “not right and not acceptable.” Basically, he called for a truce.

Harvey is not easy to embrace. He seems to love the trappings of celebrity, without the composed self-assurance of Derek Jeter, who pulled off the rare trick of being accessible and distant all at once. Harvey contributes to Jeter’s Players’ Tribune website as its “NYC Bureau Chief,” a title that is equal parts awkward and bizarre — or maybe just an inside joke.

If Harvey seems unsure of how exactly to strut in the city’s glare, the mound has always been his happy place. Within a year of his major league debut, he was starting the All-Star Game at Citi Field. Then came Tommy John surgery, a year off, and a comeback unlike any we have seen: 33 starts through the end of the World Series with a 2.75 earned run average.

“I think a lot of people set a bar for Matt that’s extremely high,” said second baseman Neil Walker, who homered off Jose Quintana for the game’s only run on Monday. “He’s certainly capable of being there, but he’s also human.”

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The Mets had resisted the idea of Harvey as anything but the cocksure superhero. He dresses, after all, at a locker with its own full-length cabinet, the one marked by a sticker depicting himself in mid-delivery, inside a Batman logo. When Collins cited Harvey’s lack of confidence after his start on May 19, catcher Kevin Plawecki disagreed.

“The Matt Harvey I know is not one that loses confidence,” Plawecki said.

Yet it was hard to argue the point after the beating in Washington five days later. The pitching coach, Dan Warthen, has refused all interviews through this ordeal, but told Collins on Monday that something indefinable seemed better this time.

“I asked him when he came in how he warmed up,” Collins said. “He said: ‘He always warms up good. He’s just got a little different air to him today.’ And I think he proved it.”

Collins entered the game hoping for six good innings, no more, to give Harvey a foundation for future success. Then Harvey, through his pitching, reminded Collins not to lower his standards.

Working with a different catcher, Rene Rivera, Harvey established his fastball early, using it for 17 of his first 19 pitches. Then he introduced the other stuff, almost always where he wanted it. His mechanical adjustment, Harvey explained, was to stay over the rubber a bit longer, to give his arm time to find the proper release point. From there, he commanded everything.

“His kind of stuff when he’s locating, he’s going to throw the ball well,” said Alex Avila, the veteran White Sox catcher, who has caught several Cy Young Award winners. “Trust me, I’ve seen really good pitchers like himself struggle at times, but there’s always a chance, with that kind of stuff and track record, to put together a good game.”

Harvey retired the first 13 hitters, until J. B. Shuck singled with one out in the fifth, forcing Harvey to work from the stretch for the first time. The stretch, Harvey later acknowledged, had been a challenge for him, and here he got a break: Brett Lawrie blistered a liner to first, but Wilmer Flores snared it and stepped on the bag for a double play.

Through six innings, Harvey had faced the minimum 18 batters. Collins liked the idea of letting him continue, reasoning that a little adversity might not be so bad. He told Warthen that the seventh belonged to Harvey unless a run scored.

Harvey walked the leadoff man, then allowed a single. A sacrifice bunt moved the runners, but Harvey got the dangerous Todd Frazier to pop out on a 94-mile-an-hour fastball. Then Shuck grounded out on another fastball, at 95, and Harvey could stalk off the mound with pride.

It was only a first step, Harvey said. His earned run average is 5.37, and his record is 4-7. He needs more games like this to re-establish himself.

“It’s a work in progress,” Harvey said. “I’m happy that I was able to go out there and feel comfortable in my mechanics and get the job done.”

Maybe it was all about those mechanics, nothing more complicated than getting his arm in the right place to do what it does best. Or maybe Harvey, who had known almost nothing but success, just needed time to cope with failure. On Monday, he came roaring from the depths.

“When you’re mentally strong, you don’t worry about the other stuff,” Collins said. “You fight through it. And that’s the Matt Harvey we always knew.”

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