NEW YORK — Matt Harvey has embraced his superheroic nickname but, recently anyway, the Dark Knight of Gotham hasn’t lived up to it. Superheroes don’t allow mortals, even those responsible for their superhero bank accounts, to publicly gripe about mission counts. Superheroes don’t miss superhero training sessions. Harvey won his Game 3 start against the Dodgers in the NLDS, but it was a sweaty, unphotogenic, five-inning slog after which everyone admitted he didn’t have his best stuff, not at all the type of rousing adventure that someone like Christopher Nolan would want to shoot.
After all that, Harvey had gone into manager Terry Collins’s office prior to the decisive Game 5 in Los Angeles to volunteer his services in relief, perhaps in part to reestablish his reputation. Collins had told him to focus on his next assignment: Game 1 of the NLCS, on Saturday night in Queens, if the Mets reached it.
“I wanted this game bad,” Harvey would say.
It didn’t take Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud long during pregame warm-ups to realize that he was dealing with a different Harvey than he had five days earlier.
“I could tell by the first pitch I caught,” d’Arnaud said. “A paint”—meaning on the edge of the plate—“down-and-away fastball. The next one was a paint, down-and-in fastball. I knew it was going to be a fun night for the both of us.”
The fun for d’Arnaud, Harvey and the Mets began in the top of the first inning, and didn’t really end until they had defeated the Cubs, 4–2, to win Game 1. Harvey needed nine pitches to finish off Chicago in the first, but more concerning to Cubs hitters was not the number of Harvey’s offerings, but the nature of them; his utility belt was fully equipped. Harvey threw all four of his pitches—a fastball, a changeup, a curveball and a slider—in the first, and he threw them all for strikes.
“Today he had feel on all four of his pitches, and we were able to execute on all four quadrants of the plate,” d’Arnaud said. Cubs hitters, in other words, had to look for 16 different possibilities, at minimum.
“The command was outrageous tonight,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.
His powers restored, in the top of the sixth, Harvey was able to exhibit that second attribute necessary for anyone who wants to credibly carry his particular nickname: bravery. With the Mets leading 2–1 in the top of the sixth, Cubs leadoff man Dexter Fowler swung at a 94-mph Harvey fastball and laced it right back at the pitcher at a speed of 96 mph. It struck Harvey in the upper portion of his pitching arm, his right. As the crowd gasped, Harvey picked the ball up and threw out Fowler, but already several people from the Mets’ dugout were racing in his direction. Harvey waved them off.
“Wore it like a champ,” d’Arnaud said. The catcher asked Harvey if he needed to throw one practice pitch, which he did. “Ninety-five out of his hand, ready to go.”
Harvey later explained: “The ball kind of dented my arm a little bit, got me right in the tricep. But I felt fine going out there again, and really felt fine through the rest of the game. It’s a little bit swollen right now, but the training staff will take care of that and we’ll be all set.”
By the top of the eight inning, with the Mets up 4–1, Harvey had fully won the New York crowd back, if he had ever lost it. It chanted his name, in duo-syllabic rounds. This, of course, is how it works in sports, especially in New York: Talk of your misdeeds can roil the town for months—even years (ask Alex Rodriguez)—but if you win, and especially if you dominate, you’ll be loved again instantly, and maybe forever.
No more than a few seconds after the chant died, Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs’ powerful rookie, blasted the 97th and last pitch of Harvey’s otherwise efficient night deep into the night. It traveled an untold distance because as even Harvey would say, “That hasn’t landed yet.”
But it was too late. The Mets had already scored too much off Jon Lester, with one of their runs coming off a solo homer from the suddenly unstoppable Daniel Murphy, and another from a solo shot by d’Arnaud that landed on the massive apple in centerfield, thereby dispelling a persistent rumor among New York children that an explosion would result if that event ever came to pass. And Harvey had already restored his reputation, in the only way that he knew would work.
“I talk to this guy every day,” Collins said. “I know exactly what he’s about, and he wants the baseball. He wants it. He wants to be out there tonight. If it comes down to a Game 7 … he’ll want it, believe me. That’s not just a mask that he’s putting on.”
On Saturday night, Harvey’s substance matched, and even exceeded, his style. As Maddon said, “Therein lies the game.”