Matt Harvey had a quiet offseason, for the most part. He took some time to rest, attended a bunch of Knicks and Rangers games and began working out at Scott Boras’ training facility in California, trying to make sure his right arm would be strong and durable as he heads into his second full season after Tommy John surgery.
All the while, however, one moment continued to gnaw at him.
The final, painful image of what was otherwise a wildly successful 2015 New York Mets season came in the top of the ninth inning of Game 5 of the World Series. Going into that inning, Harvey had put together a four-hit shutout as he battled to keep the Mets alive in the Series and send it back to Kansas City for Game 6.
But Harvey was also working with just a two-run lead, and was at 102 pitches for the evening, just about the point where prudence dictated that he should come out of the game and let the Mets turn things over to their formidable closer, Jeurys Familia.
However, the 26-year-old Harvey has always been a little headstrong, and in this instance he prevailed on his manager, Terry Collins, to let him go back out to the mound for the ninth. Collins relented and said OK, go get ’em. At which point Harvey proceeded to walk the leadoff hitter, Lorenzo Cain, on a 3-2 slider and then throw a hittable fastball that Eric Hosmer drove to left field for a run-scoring double.
It was the last pitch Harvey would throw in 2015, but the damage was done. The Royals went on to tie the game in that inning, and then win the game, and the Series, in the 12th. And Harvey was left to think about what he could have, or should have, done that he didn’t.
“If I went back, I would throw a different pitch,” he said Monday after reporting to the Mets’ spring training facility here. “But I think a lot of people would. Everybody wishes they could go back at some point and change things.”
But which pitch would Harvey take back? The full-count slider to Cain? The fastball that Hosmer whacked to the opposite field? Harvey wouldn’t say. He just said he would use that whole unhappy inning as motivation as the 2016 season unfolds.
For Harvey, the coming months represent a new chapter in his career. The Bubble Wrap is gone; he should be free of the innings limits and pitch counts that hung over him at times last season as the Mets tried to steer him to the finish line without any postsurgical problems arising.
This time around, Harvey should be free to be more like the Harvey of old, the pitcher who intimidated the National League in 2013 before he went down with an injured elbow.
This time around, there will, presumably, be a cessation in the squabbling that arose last season, when Harvey’s agent, Boras, publicly questioned whether the Mets were overusing his client.
This time around, there will, presumably, be no more questions about his commitment to the team, or whether he can pitch deep into the postseason, assuming the Mets get there.
As it was, amid the circus atmosphere that sometimes surrounded Harvey last season, he managed to throw 216 innings, including the playoffs, the most of his career.
He posted a 2.71 regular-season ERA, won 13 regular-season games and two more in the postseason, and for 24 outs in Game 5 of the World Series was back to being the ace of the Mets’ immensely talented pitching staff.
Pitchers who have had Tommy John surgery sometimes struggle in their first year back and then get stronger in Year 2, having regained stamina and confidence. For instance, in 2013, Adam Wainwright of the St. Louis Cardinals dropped a full run off his ERA in his second year back from the surgery.
All of which Harvey knows.
“It’s nice knowing I’ve had a whole season,” he said. “Going into a fresh year, it’s nice. It feels great.”
As he spoke with reporters, Harvey was already beginning to deal with a new concern — his potential willingness to sign a long-term deal with the Mets.
The Mets’ starting rotation is stocked with standout pitchers who are still young — Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and, eventually, a still-rehabbing Zack Wheeler — and the team’s front office has indicated it might be interested in signing at least some of them to deals that would keep them bound to the team through their first few seasons as potential free agents.
Of that group, Harvey now stands to be the first to reach free agency, after the 2018 season. And of that group, Harvey may also be the most interesting test case.
Boras traditionally prefers to get his clients to free agency as soon as possible so he can maximize their leverage on the open market. That would seem to make any long-term deal between the Mets and Harvey unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future. As well, the Mets may be wary of giving Harvey a long contract anytime soon because of his injury history.
On the other hand, that same injury history might make Harvey more inclined to take a long-term deal now rather than wait because of the immediate security it would provide.
“Whatever comes up, I’ve never shied away from it,” Harvey said of potential contract talks. “I’ve never said I wouldn’t consider it. But I haven’t heard anything considering that.”
At some point, perhaps, he will, For now, he said, the important thing is that it is time to start pitching again. Whenever he was being criticized last season — usually in connection with the debate over his innings limits — Collins would tell him to pitch well and everything would fall into place. The same message would seem to apply in 2016.
“It’s a fresh year, a new year,” Harvey said. And if he picks up where he left off in Game 5 of the World Series — before the ninth inning, that is — everyone on the Mets will be very happy indeed.
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