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Mr. Matz on the Moon

The cynical trio situated not far from where a lefthanded pitcher was about to go to work Saturday night cleverly braced for the worst. It’s the first inning, we told each other, knowingly. We all know what that means. In past starts, it’s meant Steven Matz would be rushing to make action happen on that scoreboard before seats were fully warmed to rear ends. Long Island’s Own Steven Matz [1] (LIOSM), a pitcher, isn’t supposed to make action happen that way. But he does. We knew it.

In eighteen previous starts in 2019, Steven had pitched seventeen first innings. That includes a start in which he pitched in a first inning but got credit for 0.0 IP because innings pitched are measured an out at a time and in that particular start, at Citizens Bank Park on April 16, there were no outs resulting from Matz’s pitching. Two doubles; two homers; two errors; a walk; a hit by pitch…it was a buffet of initializing ineptitude. If that performance didn’t represent exactly what Steven Matz did every single start — an earned run average of infinity is hard to carry across two-thirds of a season — it wasn’t utterly aberrant. Steven’s first-inning ERA this year coming into Saturday night was 10.00. And that was with outs being recorded in seventeen of eighteen starts.

After the first inning of Steven Matz’s nineteenth start, at Citi Field on July 27, his first-inning ERA dipped to 9.50. Not a plunge, but an improvement. Matz faced three Pittsburgh Pirates and retired them all, two of them looking at third strikes. The cynical trio — of which I was one-third — processed that its knowledge base would require a revision. We could no longer knowingly tell one another that Steven Matz “always” gives up runs in the first inning. Tonight he didn’t.

Every inning that followed was much like the first. Steven pitched an interesting game that, frankly, didn’t necessarily hold our interest. It wasn’t cynicism that kept us from being laser-focused on his blend of off-speed deliveries and uncommon poise. Going to a baseball game will be like that, especially if you’re in the company of fellow fans with whom you’ve never gone to a game before. I wasn’t going to this game as of Saturday morning. But then a fellow named Mike, who co-hosts a podcast that is good enough to invite me on periodically, contacted me to let me know he’d be in possession of tickets for Saturday night. Not just any tickets, but tickets that were coming to him by way of somebody who’d be wearing a uniform on the field. Who might that be? Let’s just say Mike can claim some fascinating baseball bloodlines. Anyway, did I want to go with him?

Yes, I said. Yes, let’s go to the game. Much like the podcast, our little party also included Rich, Mike’s frequent co-host. We gathered in a section off of home plate on the third base side. It wasn’t an overly partisan section but it was certainly more diverse in terms of allegiances than most other Citi Field sections. We rooted for the Mets but maybe cooled it when a certain Pirate failed to get a base hit because that certain Pirate was addressed by a little boy in our row as “Daddy!”

Nothing personal, kid. “Daddy” isn’t getting a base hit off Steven this evening. Few of his teammates are, either. To be fair, neither were Steven’s teammates doing much versus Trevor Williams, Matz’s Pirate counterpart. A scintillating pitchers’ duel developed, with zeroes electronically posting inning after inning. I think it was scintillating. Like I said, I was with two guys I’d never watched a game with before. I knew their voices from the podcast. But this was three guys at the game talking not into microphones but to one other. Conversation won out over concentration. If you ever meet Mike, please ask him to tell you his Carlos May story. You won’t be sorry.

I wasn’t sorry I accepted Mike’s Saturday night invitation, even if I generally don’t love that Saturday night games exist. They can sweeten the deal with Mr. Met on the Moon bobbleheads to first 25,000 all they want. I still find the whole presentation temporally unnatural. Saturday afternoons are baseball territory. Saturday nights are for other things. What the other things are are up to you. I watch Saturday night Met games on TV or listen to them on the radio because I don’t know how to not watch or listen when the Mets are playing and, besides, and I’m 90% likely to be writing about them on Saturday nights, whether I’m yearning to or not. I’m usually a little impatient by first pitch of a Saturday night game when I’m home; they had all day to do this and they’re just starting now? I’m usually sleepy when they’re over. Frankly, I’m infrequently in the mood to write about them come midnight or whenever the postgame show ends. I have to continually remind myself that Mookie Wilson snuck a ground ball down the first base line so late on a Saturday night that it was Sunday morning and it didn’t matter what day it was. I also have to remind myself that Sunday afternoon games tend to start at 1:10 and I don’t have all of Sunday morning to write about Saturday night, which fades into the rearview mirror faster than other nights.

Most Saturday night games aren’t Game Six of the World Series. This Saturday night, though, was pretty good for late July between two teams determined to go nowhere. Now and then Mike, Rich and I would pause our stream of verities and reminiscences and what the hell to do at the trade deadline to take note of all those zeroes and how Matz was still putting them up. I’m not the most observant person when it comes to how outs are gotten. I’m just happy that they’re being got (as would have Steven on April 16 in Philadelphia). But two things did grab my attention this Saturday night.

1) A lot of ground balls pounded to Todd Frazier at third base. I was taken back to the Met heyday of Al Leiter, much of which I observed from Mezzanine 9, Row M. Leiter seemed to pitch every game that Kevin Appier didn’t, and there was inevitably a procession of grounders that Robin Ventura swallowed up into that Gold Glove of his. It was beautiful how they arranged that. Matz-Frazier was a decent facsimile of Leiter-Ventura.

2) Infield defense was suddenly a Met strength. In 2019, I mean. Amed Rosario has his eyes wide open all of a sudden. Robinson Cano is pivoting like a politician. Frazier booted a grounder but was otherwise a security blanket at third. Matz was en route to striking out seven, but when contact was elicited, groans weren’t forthcoming. That was different.

This whole thing was different. Mike, Rich and I don’t go in for different all that much. That’s the subtext of A Metsian Podcast [2], the show I go on with them and, when he’s available, their partner/producer Sam. We as fans who came of age with the game in the ’70s don’t care for most of the change that’s overcome baseball in the succeeding decades. Saturday night games instead of Saturday afternoons. Loudly amplified music instead of peaceful mid-inning interludes in which friends can talk and hear each other. Games that plod on endlessly instead of being played stylishly and succinctly. Starting pitchers pulled rather than trusted to finish what they started no matter how well they’re pitching. We’re not averse to progress as a concept, but we can be delightfully crotchety when it comes to what we liked about baseball to begin with.

Steven Matz of all people was giving us a taste of our own chocolate pudding, however. We wanted a pitcher who wasn’t merely an opening act for the wheel of doom spun by the Mets bullpen? We got one. His name was Steven Matz. The same Matz we identified with first-inning calamity and disappointment over the course of however many other innings he lasted. Not this Saturday night. This Saturday night, Matz was efficient and unmovable. Trevor Williams was, too, one supposes, but unlike some of our section neighbors, we didn’t care. We just cared that we got a run or three, which is exactly what we got from Michael Conforto (a solo blast to carbonation ridge in the sixth) and J.D. Davis (a two-run job over Starling Marte’s leaping form at the center field wall in the seventh).

Now that we had a relatively comfy 3-0 lead, we could get what we innately ached for: a shutout out of Steven Matz and no one else. I’d say a “complete game shutout” but “shutout” implies it was complete. Those things can be shared, and that arrangement is fine from a winning vs. losing standpoint, but we wanted nine from one man here. That’s the code of delightfully crotchety baseball fans. Of course we wanted the shutout. That’s implicit. We want every game to be Mets infinity Other Team nothing. We want it so much that no game would be official because the Mets would be piling on runs in the first inning and we’d never get to a second.

We’d settle for a 3-0 win shepherded start to finish by Steven Matz. We ascertained the pitch count was amenable to Mickey Callaway keeping his hands in his pockets or wherever they’d be a safe distance from signaling to the bullpen. Was Diaz ready to bring his big toe into battle? Was Lugo capable of a third straight day of spin rates? Was Familia still alive out there? We didn’t want to know. We wanted Matz, Matz and nothing but Matz, which is unusual, because nobody much wants Matz. We hear every pitcher’s name in trade rumors, even the most ridiculous of them. Every pitcher’s name but Steven’s.

We were inches from Throwback City now. A complete game. A shutout. A contest requiring barely more than two hours to conclude. This was the stuff of our collective childhood. We could stay up late to watch games end in those days and still get to bed fairly early because those pitchers were all succinct and stylish. Certainly in our memories they were. And on July 27, 2019, Matz made sure he’d be. His 99th pitch, a changeup to Josh Bell, was grounded to Rosario, who picked it clean and flung it to Pete Alonso for the third out of the ninth. Steven Matz had done it: he threw his first complete game, a shutout. A five-hitter with no walks. One small step for Matz, one giant leap for Mets…or at least one that has us ahead of a few other non-contenders for a change in the nether regions of the Wild Card race. That LIOSM did it in under a hundred pitches was noteworthy in some circles. It wouldn’t have been noteworthy when we were kids because nobody counted pitches. Such a feat is considered so rare these days that’s it’s named for a former Atlanta Braves tormentor of the Mets, but if you think I’m gonna call what Steven Matz “a Maddux,” you haven’t sat with me for nine innings.

Steven threw a Matz [3]. What’s a Matz? Until otherwise indicated, it is a game spotless from the first inning through the ninth and it gets you to Woodside in plenty of time to make the 9:54 to Jamaica and your connection east from there. It’s the best Saturday night baseball can give you: terrific every minute it lasts and not lasting one more minute than it has to.