Mets' Harvey throws shutout, but faces specter of shutdown
NEW YORK -- The loss of closer Bobby Parnell to the disabled list Tuesday created a predicament for Mets manager Terry Collins. New York had enjoyed unfamiliar stability at the back end of its bullpen this season, and Parnell -- no matter how lost the Mets' postseason hopes may seem -- would need to be replaced. Collins had a swath of middling relievers (Scott Rice, LaTroy Hawkins and David Aardsma, to name a few) to use in a mix-and-match, closer-by-committee approach, but hardly any reliable answers to throw at the problem.
Until he got one Wednesday night in the form of Matt Harvey.
Over two hours and 12 minutes, Harvey shut down the Colorado Rockies from start to finish, allowing zero runs, issuing zero walks and striking out six in nine dominant innings for the first complete game shutout of his short career as New York rolled to a 5-0 win.
"It's kind of something I've been wanting to do all year," Harvey said after the game Wednesday. "Nine innings is where you want to go as a starter."
It was another brilliant outing in a season full of them for the Mets' 24-year-old ace. Since taking the spotlight role of NL All-Star starter at Citi Field three weeks ago, Harvey has trended closer and closer to "unhittable." In four starts since the break, Harvey has held opposing hitters to a .168 batting average and .187 on-base percentage, allowed one walk and yielded just four runs. It's almost impossible to watch Harvey sear one 96 mph fastball after another past opposing hitters and not wonder: Why did it take this long? How could Harvey, now a household name among MLB fans, need 33 career starts to log his first complete game?
When at his best, Harvey's four-pitch repertoire is as devastating as that of any starter in the league. While Wednesday night's performance might have left the impression that Harvey -- who needed just 106 pitches to go the distance -- wielded his absolute best stuff of the season, the consensus after the game, from both Collins and Harvey himself, was that he relied more on precision, and less on sheer power, to complete the feat.
"He doesn't have to have his greatest stuff every inning," Collins said. "I thought tonight he went out at 85 or 80 percent and said, 'I'm just going to make pitches and see if I can get some outs.' And he did, and that's what got him deeper into the game tonight."
According to fangraphs.com, Harvey's average fastball velocity Wednesday night was 95.2 mph, down one mph from his last start at Miami, which lasted just five and two thirds innings and required 110 pitches. He didn't need his best fastball on Wednesday night. Against an already mediocre Rockies lineup, which lost All-Star outfielder Carlos Gonzalez to the disabled list before the game, "85 to 80 percent" was quite enough to get him through nine innings.
"When a guy can throw 98, and he pitched 95 like he did tonight, that's obviously not 100 percent," he said.
There was a moment during Wednesday night's outing when Harvey appeared as if he might need to come out of the game. He had one Rockies hitter left to retire before sending a reported crowd of 27,851 home with a memorable mid-season treat, and as the fans rose in anticipation, and chants of "HARVEY, HARVEY" resonated throughout Citi Field, Colorado's Charlie Blackmon snapped a line drive off of Harvey's kneecap, extending the game and forcing Collins out to the mound.
"Pretty short," Collins recalls of the conversation he had on the mound with Harvey, who had no intentions of leaving before he had finished his first complete game shutout. It was a small exchange, but it was something worth considering as Harvey, who is now at 159 2/3 innings this season, moves closer toward an undeclared innings limit that is expected to be around 200 later this year; he threw 169 1/3 innings between the minors and majors last season.
The six-man rotation the Mets have used at various points in 2013, and plan to reinstitute once John Niese returns from the disabled list Sunday, was implemented primarily to extend Harvey and rookie Zach Wheeler's seasons, but the extended rest time between starts doesn't mean Harvey won't have to leave a few games earlier than he might like to.
And for a player as competitive and as strong-willed as Harvey -- he once threw 157 pitches in a college game, as detailed by SI's Tom Verducci -- the prospect of having starts cut short isn't exactly an ideal scenario for his first full season in the major leagues.
"That's their decision," Harvey said of the possibility of leaving games early. "I gotta go out and do all I can and put up zeroes as long as I can. When they take the ball, it's not my call."
On a night like Wednesday, though, Collins was willing to sublimate long-view innings concerns and modern pitching conventional wisdom. "You don't have many opportunities to pitch shutouts," he said. "I just said, 'I'll worry about making up those innings later, but right now, the kid deserves it.'"
Harvey will likely face similar situations later this season -- moments when Collins runs out to pull his ace from games for precautionary reasons, only without a prospective injury to prompt his trip to the mound.
It's an unavoidable fact of life in today's micro-managed developmental pitching world, where young arms like Harvey's are treated so delicately and monitored so closely, that even the slightest overstep in an imposed "innings limit" is viewed as dangerous for a given pitcher's long-term health. Even someone as solidly built and as clean mechanically as Harvey will face moments later this season when he's forced to leave games prematurely. "I don't like when [coaches] come out on the field at all," Harvey said.
In another Mets season full of disappointments, Harvey's occasionally breathtaking starts have provided refreshing flashes of optimism -- of hope for a year when complete game shutouts in August have broader, standings-related implications. As it relates to the 2013 Mets, Harvey's gem, while brilliant on its own merits, means close to nothing for a team still 10 1/2 games out of a wild card playoff spot.
The mindful approach of limiting Harvey's (and Wheeler's) innings through a six-man rotation and shortening starts is about setting New York up for a future where its promising young rotation is pitching for something more than individual accomplishment. After all, the Mets' window of contention is not in 2013; next season, with a young rotation rounding into form and a heap of dead money coming off the books, is when the club is expected to make a playoff push.
The most gratifying moments in a season like this, one with seemingly no postseason hope, are when budding stars take the mound, cruise through a lineup three times over in a way few other major league starters can and offer glimpses of the bright future to come.
That's what Harvey did Wednesday night.