By Ernie Palladino
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On the day Zack Wheeler made nobody yearn for the future in his Citi Field debut, we’re once again forced to talk about Matt Harvey.
The blossoming greats make you do that, especially when the second supposed wiz kid gives up the first five runs of a 13-2 pounding to Washington. The circumstances of the season always forces a look at the guy who has just busted down the door and established himself as one to be feared and respected even at a young age.
The issue with Harvey is two-fold. On the one hand, a great cry has gone up in support of him starting the All-Star game at Citi Field. The other is the possibility of the right-handed flamethrower not finishing the season because of an organizational decision to shut him down.
The first is absolutely legitimate. The other is absolutely wrong-headed.
Happy issue first. Aside from the days Harvey and Wheeler pitch, July 16 is going to be the most exciting baseball day in Queens this year. It’s not only a good idea public relations-wise for NL manager Bruce Bochy to give Harvey the start, but a deserved one. Harvey has earned the honor, whether the game is in Citi Field, Minute Maid Park, or wherever.
The 7-1, 2.00 record over 17 starts certainly puts him in the conversation with the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, whose 6-5 hard-luck mark belies a 2.08 ERA and the majors’ sixth-best strikeout total of 118. Arizona’s Patrick Corbin (9-0, 2.22), St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright (11-5, 2.22), and Washington’s Jordan Zimmerman (11-3, 2.28) would also be good candidates. Certainly the win total on each is glitzier than Harvey’s.
But here’s the thing that puts Harvey over the top; those nine no-decisions among his 17 starts. For the most part, Harvey left those games holding a lead, only to see a weak bullpen blow it for him. He wasn’t trailing, only to be taken off the hook by a late-game offensive rally. Proof of that lies in the 7-0 record with a 1.49 ERA and three no-decisions in games won by the Mets. And of the truly painful times Harvey left, usually with a lead, and lost, he was 0-1, 2.82, with six no-decisions.
Again, keep in mind the generally punchless offense the Mets have sported most of the season, and one gets a true read on how much Harvey has achieved in a short period of time. The 132 strikeouts that rank second in the majors behind the Rangers’ Yu Darvish just embellishes the accomplishments.
It makes sense baseball-wise and emotionally to give Harvey the start. Unless he throws a no-hitter this year, certainly a possibility since he’s taken three other chances at one deep into games, this is going to be his only highlight. Even if Harvey never loses another game, the Mets are going nowhere this year. A .500 season would represent a huge victory at this point.
He deserves his time in the sun now, because that star could set in September. That would be a shame, and a big mistake on the part of Terry Collins and Sandy Alderson. With Harvey already at 117 innings pitched, Collins has said they’d rather shut him down than risk burning him out with any significant innings over 200.
That’s called managing by fear. An easy, fluid pitching motion should allow Harvey to withstand any punishment those latter innings inflict on that valuable right arm. If anything, they’ll serve to build it up with Harvey a willing participant because of his competitive demeanor.
Teams don’t handle pitchers that way anymore, which is why so many come up with arm problems. The key with Harvey is not to baby him, but to let him work naturally. Yank him early in the September games to save some innings, but give him the starts. Let him grow confident about working as well in September as he did in May. Even Collins said as much.
In the days before managers started treating pitchers like porcelain Hummel figures, a fellow named Tom Seaver threw 230 innings or more in each of his first 11 years, and fell 9 1/3 innings short of 300 in 1970. The work didn’t seem to bother the Hall of Famer.
Another former Met whose plaque hangs in Cooperstown, Nolan Ryan, threw 326 and 332 innings over consecutive seasons ‘73 and ‘74. He pitched until he was 80, or somewhere around there.
Harvey isn’t Seaver or Ryan yet. But Collins should give him a chance to be like them. The kid is made of strong stuff. He can go hard for a long time. What’s more, he wants to.
Almost as much as he deserves the honor of an All-Star start.
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