Each Matt Harvey start transports me to a better place — a better place than third, even if the Mets have been stuck there since well before he came up and will have to keep what’s left of their act together to remain there. (Hard-to-believe fact: the Mets, despite losing 20 of their last 28, still have a better record than seven National League teams.) Four starts into his major league career, Harvey is technically on a downward slide, having gone from 1-0 to 1-3 since his splashy debut in Phoenix, but by any reasonable assessment, he’s getting better and better.
Friday night, he mapped out an ideal trajectory for his future: get the struggling out of the way early, persevere through the inherent challenges he will inevitably face and then shift into cruise control. Granted, the six-inning microcosm of what we’d like to take as a metaphor didn’t do the Mets much good in the face of Mighty Paul Maholm, master of the offspeed and invincible to the tune of a three-hit shutout. When was the last time Maholm pitched as well as this? Measured by Bill Jamesian Game Score, never.
Maholm chose MercyMe Concert Night to be at his most unmercifully effective, though perhaps there should be an asterisk attached to his performance as the Mets’ lineup included .152-batting Jason Bay, who was presumably playing as part of some Make-A-Wish arrangement. Old hat for Maholm, who once faced a New York team whose leadoff hitter for a day was 60th-birthday boy Billy Crystal.
So Big Bad Paul, who couldn’t have looked like a better pennant race pickup for Atlanta, rendered opposition irrelevant, but that didn’t stop Harvey from making the rest of us feel at least a little Metfully good once he honed his location and stopped walking Braves. Control wasn’t an overriding issue in Matt’s first three outings, but as long as he’s serving up a smorgasbord of starts (dominant vs. Diamondbacks; hard-luck vs. Giants; shaky at San Diego), why not this kind? Why not the kind where he looks hopeless early and reverts to hopeful for the duration? The five walks were not pleasant, but except for his pitch count, the only harm came from Jason Heyward homering with the first base-on-baller, Michael Bourn, on base. That made it 2-0 after three batters.
Four walks awaited between the first and the third, but no more runs. For that matter, only one more hit materialized after the first inning en route to retiring his last nine in a row. That old chestnut about getting to great pitchers early if you wanted to get to them at all floated by in my mind. Matt Harvey isn’t a great pitcher yet, but he continues to show signs he can be and he continues to comport himself like he expects to be. “I don’t like to lose,” he said, in an echo of his San Francisco self-assessment. “I don’t like to give up runs. Tonight I didn’t do my job very well [...] I’ve got to do better.”
Nothing there about not getting breaks or going up against a tough opponent or, thank heaven, making his pitches but they just found holes. Even the Freddie Freeman sizzler that smacked off his right thigh before becoming a third-inning putout wasn’t about to get the best of him:
“I’m going out and walking people. And then I go out and get smoked by a line drive. It pissed me off, to be honest with you.”
That response reminded me of one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite episodes of one of my favorite shows, Six Feet Under — when David Fisher (Michael C. Hall) tells his hunky cop boyfriend Keith of the first time he noticed him:
“I just noticed how you locked your car. You pointed the button at it like, ‘Fuck you, car, now you’re locked.’”
If I’m swooning over anything regarding Matt Harvey, it’s his implicit attitude that nothing — not wildness, not Heyward, not a car alarm — is supposed to be an unscalable obstacle. It feels like he insists on winning. The Mets, as a rule, don’t insist on winning. I’m sure they prefer it to the alternative, and I don’t doubt they strive toward it with hard work and diligent preparation, but even when they were going well for a third of a season, I didn’t get the sense they expected to win to the point of not accepting losing. Their bouts of success, which never added up to a record better than eight games over .500, always seemed laced with amazement that, Gosh, we did it! We won a game! Maybe we’ll take two of three! Let’s dress up like cowboys and hockey players for the next road trip!
Then two out of three became one out of three (if that) and it was back to Terry Collins explaining yeah, we got beat, but the game was close and the other team deserves credit; and David Wright mournfully issuing respectful quotes in deference to the victors; and one youngster after another, once the blooms receded from their respective roses, essentially admitting, “I’m sorry, I’m lost.”
Unlike my friend Howard Megdal, I don’t intuit that this is 1977 incarnate talentwise. Howard made an intriguing case on Capital New York that this August’s square one shares uncomfortable similarities with that August’s square one, yet having lived through that August — Friday was 35 years to the day since I lived that August most tangibly — I will attest bringing your kids to see these kids is a damn sight less horrifying than bringing oneself to see those kids. Nevertheless, having framed this year early and often as the year when we needed to see meaningful steps forward by the eight homegrown players under 28 who’d been around here for parts of the last three to five seasons (Thole, Davis, Murphy, Tejada, Duda, Niese, Gee, Parnell), it’s rather disappointing to realize their collective net progress has been barely positive, and that’s if you’re grading on a generous curve. 2012 doesn’t feel like 1977, the beginning of the dread times, but I don’t believe it feels like 1983, when the light began to flicker fitfully but convincingly at the end of the tunnel.
Most nights for the past five weeks, 2012 hasn’t felt like anything at all. Except when Matt Harvey pitches. Then it really feels like something.