The first time Matt Harvey pitched at Wrigley Field was the best time Matt Harvey pitched at Wrigley Field . In some ways, it was the best time Matt Harvey pitched anywhere. Other dates in his dust-covered portfolio of Harvey Days pop a little more in popular memory — this is a guy who flirted with no-hitters like they were supermodels — but Friday afternoon, May 17, 2013, was perhaps Peak Harvey. Matt had just made the cover of Sports Illustrated, where he was dubbed the Dark Knight for the first time. On the mound, he was undefeated through eight starts and unwilling to be sullied in his ninth. Against the Cubs in Chicago, Matt had to shake off two first-inning runs, the second of them scoring on an error, in order to, if you don’t mind a quick shift from Batman to Star Trek, go forth and prosper.
He made his own prosperity the rest of the day, retiring 20 of his next 21 batters once he fell behind. The game was tied going to the seventh. Harvey untied it himself, singling in his own go-ahead run (carried by Rick Ankiel, which sounds even weirder now than it did then). Matt lasted until one was out in the eighth and, aided immeasurably by Marlon Byrd gunning down Darwin Barney at the plate shortly after his departure, earned his fifth victory of the season. No SI cover jinx that week. Harvey’s record was 5-0, his ERA was 1.55, he was striking out more than a batter an inning, and numbers didn’t begin to describe just how incredible a pitcher he was.
It’s impossible to reckon a Harvey start these past two years without being conscious of the shadow cast by his past pitching life. He’s only 28, yet he drags a trunkload of nostalgia behind him to the rubber every fifth or so day when he is available to appear. I couldn’t watch him at Wrigley Wednesday night without thinking of that Friday afternoon. I might as well have been Archie Bunker at the piano, crooning wistfully for boy, the way Matt Harvey threw…
Mister, we could use a Matt like All-Star Harvey again. We don’t get that anymore, not in the wake of multiple surgeries, rehabilitations, absences and inevitably sputtering comebacks. We didn’t get it Wednesday night. For three innings, Matt was as effective as you could possibly imagine him being in 2017, wriggling out of three varying degree-of-difficulty jams with only two runs allowed. I thought maybe we were in that charmed land where a good pitcher gets stronger and a better team regrets not cashing in opportunities and a contender is tripped up by a spoiler. After Harvey exited with 86 pitches thrown and the bases loaded in the fourth, and Hansel Robles ushered in all three of his runners, I thought instead of the practiced doublespeak of Ron Ziegler, the press secretary to Richard Nixon at the height of All in the Family’s Nielsens:
“The president refers to the fact that there is new material; therefore this is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.”
Ziegler would have loved flacking for the Mets relief corps, as inoperative a unit as you’ll stumble across on a September evening this sad season. Hansel pointed the Mets toward a loss; Chasen Bradford confirmed the direction the game was going in; and the rest of the poor little lambs who’ve yet to find their way waved home wave after wave of Cub after Cub. By the time Kevin McGowan, Jacob Rhame and Jamie Callahan had clocked some of that all-important valuable experience, the Mets were down, 17-5.
Kevin Plawecki might have pitched in as he occasionally does when Met hopes have gone not so much to hell, but past it, except Kevin was busy catching and batting cleanup. For the record, utility infielder Matt Reynolds started at first base for the first time and batted second cleanup, or eighth. Twelve runs down in the ninth, potential catcher of the future Tomas Nido made his major league debut, pinch-hitting for Plawecki. He flied out. Veterans aren’t allowed to blatantly haze rookies anymore, but making Nido have a hand in this game served as a fairly humiliating initiation into what it’s like to be a Met.
I’m sure Nido was thrilled to become a major leaguer, no matter the context. The context of this September is supposed to be about seeing the kids, along with any Met who’s still standing, do what they can. Wednesday night the kids in the pen were having their pitches crushed and their ERAs inflated. A couple of the kids with bats had a better go of it, particularly Dominic Smith, who initially sat behind Reynolds but homered late, and Amed Rosario , whose early hype was beginning to seem as distant as that which surrounded Harvey’s when Matt’s arm had that intoxicating new ace smell to it.
Remember Amed Rosario? He was going to be the focus of the stretch drive — or limp — of 2017. Between the Mets so thoroughly receding from competitiveness and Amed having to sit out a week with a swollen index finger, I swear I’d kind of forgotten about our next great shortstop, at least in terms of him being our next great shortstop ASAP. On these Mets, nobody seems very good for very long.
For two nights in Chicago, we’ve gotten another much-needed inkling that we were not fed talking points where Rosario’s talent is concerned. It’s real, and it’s not hard to discern, even when the Mets are proceeding to lose by a dozen . On Tuesday, Amed made a leaping catch that didn’t matter to the outcome, but it was the most vertical thing we’d seen short of Juan Lagares at the wall. On Wednesday, there were three base hits, two runs scored (one on a well-executed Harvey safety squeeze) and a stolen base. The bit about minor league callups having to get used to how fast the game goes in the majors suddenly no longer seemed to apply. Amed was Rosario Speedwagon and he was taking the concept of “Keep the Fire Burnin’ ” to heart with his feet.
He’ll take his lumps, as will Smith, as will Nido, as will the rest of the youthful Mets. In this series, the first-place Cubs constitute the Cook County Bureau of Lumps and there’s been enough patronage dispensed in Chicago so that each of the defending world champions has been deputized a municipal administrator of pain. I noticed an ad behind home plate touting some distilled spirit or other as the Official Bourbon of the Cubs. What, I wondered, do they need an official bourbon for? They’re in a race. Pass the Mets the bottle. Pass the Mets fans the bottle.
One assumes it won’t always be like this. It can’t always be this exactly, anyway. The season has only 17 games, or 153 scheduled innings, left to it. The youth movement will gain a stripe or two worth of maturity before long. Some of these guys will go without a trace, yet some proportion of the youngsters we’re watching will become veterans we’re watching and the games won’t be as bathed in hopelessness as they’ve become. If you can’t comfort yourself with vague suppositions that things gotta get better (even if they can always get worse), pour yourself a shot of precedent. There’s a September Mets game for you to consider warmly, that of September 22, 1965, a 6-2 loss at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. The defeat dropped the Mets’ record to 48-106.
The inspiration is not in the record, but in the box score . Your September 22, 1965 starting lineup included five players age 23 and under who, admittedly, weren’t going to help the Mets finish any better than 50-112 a week-and-a-half later. But those particular Met pups who’d yet to mount a challenge to the franchise’s losing pedigree would, in relative short order, become some of the Mets who’d change everything. No, Buddy Harrelson, Ed Kranepool, Ron Swoboda, Cleon Jones and Tug McGraw couldn’t beat the Pirates as veritable tykes, yet in four years, they’d grow up to beat the odds and the Orioles, and they’d champion the world.
Further, several of the others who represented New York that night in Pittsburgh would be exchanged for still others who we now recall as 1969 Mets. Or maybe they’d be traded for somebody else who’d be traded for somebody else who would emerge as such.
Dennis Ribant and Gary Kolb became Don Cardwell.
Jim Hickman went for Tommy Davis who went for Tommie Agee and Al Weis. Agee almost singlehandedly beat the O’s in Game Three of the 1969 World Series. Kranepool also homered that afternoon.
Charley Smith helped bring in Ken Boyer, and Ken Boyer helped bring in J.C. Martin. Martin bunted in the winning run of Game Four versus Baltimore an inning after Swoboda made the diving catch that shocked, stunned and stymied the Orioles in a flash.
Donn Clendenon, who drove in a pair for the Pirates that day in 1965, was acquired from Montreal in 1969 for a package that included Kevin Collins. Clendenon homered with Jones (and his stylishly polished shoes) on first in Game Five to put the Mets on the board and earned World Series MVP honors once that game was won — though some thought the award could have gone to Weis, who homered to tie Game Five.
Nobody who looked at the Mets in September of 1965 saw the Mets of October of 1969 or had a clue as to what the latter would forever after signify. Nobody who looks at the Mets of September of 2017 sees much worth looking at much longer right now. That’s fair. But, maybe, only for now.