WASHINGTON — When the New York Mets fell behind 7–1 to the Washington Nationals after six innings, manager Terry Collins’s thoughts turned to resting key players. Then, when the Mets rallied for six runs in the seventh and Kirk Nieuwenhuis hit a game-winning home run in the eighth, Collins couldn’t believe his eyes.
“I kept saying, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’” Collins said after the Mets beat the Nationals 8–7 on Tuesday night to extend their lead in the National League East to six games. “I don’t have words for it. I’m not sure I’ve been in a bigger win than that. To fight back against Jordan Zimmermann, Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon, coming out on top, that’s a huge salute to the guys in that room.”
The Mets are trying to reach their first postseason since 2006, and the improbable win at quiet Nationals Park not only changes the landscape in the division race, it also makes it easier for the Mets to manage their ace pitcher, Matt Harvey, during the final 24 games of the season.
Harvey pitched 5 1/3 innings against the Nationals, raising his total to 171 2/3 innings in a season where he’s coming back from ligament-replacement surgery in his right elbow.
Harvey’s innings total erupted in controversy Friday when his hard-driving agent, Scott Boras, expressed concern that the Mets were risking his client’s future. Harvey said his surgeon, Dr. James Andrews, recommended he stop at 180 innings. Mets general manager Sandy Alderson tried to broker a deal to keep all parties happy.
Does Harvey, an All-Star in 2013, have one start left? Can he pitch in the postseason and if so, how many games? Will extra time between starts cost him crispness? Is there more to judging a pitcher in this situation than just number of innings?
The Mets, though, aren’t saying what the approach is. And, while Collins said the six-game lead is nice, there’s an issue about keeping Harvey sharp. He said the Mets have a plan and that everyone is on the same page.
Collins said he will sit down with The Boss—that would be Alderson—and decide when Harvey pitches again.
“I still believe deep inside, Matt Harvey wants to pitch,” Collins said. “We’ll decide when he’s going to pitch. You are dealing with a human being. One thing that is on his mind is the future. I understand his thought process. He is in line to make an awful lot of money one day. You have to look at the big picture.”
Harvey, 26, who last lost July 20 in D.C., allowed a career high-tying seven runs Tuesday. He was throwing fastballs at 98 mph but his location was off.
His first two innings were messy when the Nationals peppered him with a string of singles and scored three runs. Harvey needed 24 pitches to get through the next three innings, but he left in the sixth after centerfielder Yoenis Cespedes’s three-run error allowed the Nationals to take a 7–1 lead. Harvey threw 74 pitches.
“The first inning, his command wasn’t really good,” Collins said. “I think he was trying to show everybody who he is. He was over-throwing. I was proud of him to go out there with a monkey on his back like it was. He did the best he could.”
Harvey, who gave up seven runs for the third time in his career, said his body felt good and his arm strong, but couldn’t hit his spots.
“I left way too many pitches over the middle of the plate and they made contact,” Harvey said. “My arm felt great.”
Harvey deflected a question about when he’ll pitch again: “I’m ready whenever they decide to throw me out there.”
And, when asked if the controversy was a distraction, he deflected again.
“We’re excited about the win right now, that’s huge for us, the most important thing,” Harvey said. “Our concern is about tomorrow.”
When asked about the emotion of the night, Harvey deflected a third time: “I love competing with this team.’
Over the weekend, after Boras brought up the issue of innings, Harvey deflected questions about if his agent caught him off-guard with the story. It turned into a social media debate about Harvey’s character and he finally told reporters of Andrews’s 180-inning cap.
“He’s fine,” Mets third baseman David Wright said of Harvey. “I haven’t followed the story, but I know that it isn’t a distraction. We are having so much fun, we are not going to let anything from the outside distract us and ruin this.”
Harvey wrote in The Players’ Tribune, a website owned by former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter that allows players to say what they want without going through reporters, that he understands the risk and that he’s going to pitch if the Mets make the postseason.
“It will be a compromise between the doctors and the Mets organization to get me, and the team, to where we need to be for our postseason run,” Harvey said.
During the game-winning rally Tuesday, Harvey was rushing his postgame routine so he could join his teammates in the dugout to watch the turnaround.
“I got out there to see the home run in the eighth inning,” Harvey said. “It was awesome.”
Before Tuesday’s game, Collins said that he had suggested to Harvey to not say anything to reporters. But, Collins took responsibility for not being stronger with Harvey on talking specifics to the media.
“He was stuck in the middle and that was unfair, tremendously unfair,’’ Collins said. “Someone just had to get into the news,’’ referring to Boras’s penchant for needing media attention. “We’ve always had a plan.”
With a six-game lead, the controversy will die down. The Mets will go for a sweep of the Nationals on Wednesday night with Jacob deGrom pitching.
Collins said there’s still work to do and the team can’t afford to leave all the emotion and adrenaline in Washington.
How does the team keep the energy flowing?
“They’re young,” Collins said. “I’m going to run out.”
A six-game lead will make life easier.