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Fight the Future

In a season turned disappointing, Matt Harvey’s performances just get more encouraging.

Harvey throws a fastball in the high 90s and supplements it with a good curve and slider and a developing change-up, so this statement wouldn’t seem to be edging too far from the tree trunk. But none of Harvey’s pitches was working particularly well tonight — especially when the batter was Tyler Paul Cloyd, who’d never seen a pitch thrown in anger in the big leagues. (For whatever reason, Harvey was incapable of throwing the least-threatening hitter in the Phils’ lineup a strike, which seems weirder than it is, baseball being baseball and all.) Harvey tinkered and fought and gutted his way through, though, and the Mets did just enough [1] to support him.

We haven’t thought much about Lucas Duda in weeks, but there he was, socking a two-run homer inside the foul pole, making a moderately difficult running catch in left-center to deny Ryan Howard, and even stealing a base. Duda is a player you root for, one who was put in a less-than-ideal situation and lived down to it, leading to his Buffalo exile. When he’s right, Duda has a precocious eye at the plate and very quick hands, not to mention enormous power. Those things aren’t easy to find. Unfortunately, Duda is also a first baseman who can’t play the positions available to him, something that was made painfully clear this year. His other potential flaw is more interesting to think about: Numerous accounts make it plain that Duda is too open about his self-doubt, which is perfectly forgivable in the real world but a sin in the baseball world. I remember Jason Jacome being shipped out soon after admitting to self-doubt — and Billy Beane’s painful recollection of being unable to get out of his own way mentally, coupled with the realization that dumb, blithely assured Lenny Dykstra had the better recipe for being a baseball player.

Where Duda’s concerned, the Mets seem stuck. He’d be better off somewhere he could play first or be a designated hitter, which would keep his mind (and everybody else’s) off his defense. But his poor year at the plate — which quite possibly began with his own struggles on defense — has turned him from prospect to suspect, decreasing his value. So the Mets are left hoping that Duda can find his way in left, which isn’t substantially an improvement over the plan that just landed him in Buffalo. And so we have a dog chasing its tail: Duda needs a change of scenery, but the Mets can’t get enough back for him to make that change of scenery happen.

Harvey doesn’t have this baggage — he’s a power pitcher, with no obvious weaknesses except a lack of experience, which ought to fix itself. But things happen to baseball players that you can’t see coming — in fact, such things happen to the vast majority of them. The arc that began with celebrating a childhood phenom gets interrupted somewhere before Cooperstown: Players get hurt, or fail to keep up with opponents’ adjustments, or age before their time, or somehow just misplace that unshakeable belief in themselves. Harvey looks tough and promising, and he is — but so were Hank Webb and David West and Paul Wilson and Bill Pulsipher and Patrick Strange and Philip Humber and Mike Pelfrey. Eventually we all realized they needed a change of scenery.

You probably came here expecting a rah-rah post — the Mets have won four in a row, tied the Phillies for third place, and their bullpen suddenly looks like it’s found its footing. And I was planning a rah-rah post, because this is fun and because it would be very, very nice to finish the year looking down at the City of Slovenly Thugs. But something about Harvey and Duda emerging as the heroes of the game derailed that plan. Matt Harvey is a key piece of our future, but not too long ago so was Lucas Duda. Nothing is forever and nothing is assured.