Matt Harvey's emergence as one of the best pitchers in baseball took another leap forward Tuesday night. He flirted with a perfect game for six and two-thirds innings, retiring the first 20 White Sox batters he faced before Alex Rios beat out an infield single to short with two outs in the seventh. Rios, whose hit was a soft-hopper to just the right spot and who was safe by less than a step, was the only baserunner Harvey allowed in the entire game, which saw him complete nine innings and strike out 12.
Harvey didn't pick up the win because the Mets didn't score until the bottom of the tenth, but the performance dropped his ERA after seven starts to 1.28, his WHIP to 0.69. He also lowered his career marks after 17 major league starts to a 2.07 ERA and 0.94 WHIP. What's more, by game score, it was the best-pitched game of the season, besting Yu Darvish's perfect-game bid by one point, and the best-pitched game by a Met since David Cone faced what was essentially a spring training lineup on the final day of the 1991 season and struck out 19 Phillies. As much as Johan Santana's no-hitter meant to Mets fans last year, this was a far better performance (Rios was as close to out as Carlos Beltran's ball in the Santana game was to foul), and is all the more impressive for coming so early in Harvey's career.
To that last point, since 1916, which is as far back as we have complete box score data, just three pitchers have posted a game score higher than the 97 Harvey registered Tuesday night in an outing of nine or fewer innings within their first 20 major league appearances. The best of those games was Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout game in 1998, which came in his fifth major league start and resulted in a game score of 105. One of the other two also came in 1998. That was Kevin Millwood's 15th major league appearance and 11th start, in which he bettered Harvey's Tuesday-night line by one strikeout (9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 13 K) for a game score of 96. The third was Don Wilson's first no-hitter, which came in the 15th major league appearance (and 12th start) by the Astros righty in June 1967. Wilson threw a second no-no in May 1969.
Wilson wasn't the only pitcher to throw a no-hitter so early in his career. It's been done 13 times since 1916, most recently by Clay Buchholz, who threw a no-no in his second career start in 2007, tying a record set by the White Sox's Wilson Alvarez in 1991. What's more, the White Sox's Charlie Robertson threw a perfect game in his fifth career appearance in 1922. However, none of those games, save for Wilson's, resulted in a higher game score than Harvey's on Tuesday night.
Incidentally, the best game score in an outing of any length by a pitcher in his first 20 career appearances and the best game score in Mets history are one and the same, and I guarantee you'll never guess the pitcher ...
It was lefty Rob Gardner*, who, in his fifth career appearance and fourth start, threw 15 scoreless innings in the second game of a double-header on the penultimate day of the 1965 season, a game that was called after 18 scoreless frames and in which Gardner's 112 game score was the second-best in the game. Phillies starter Chris Short also threw 15 scoreless innings and struck out 18 Mets along the way for a 114 game score. As if that weren't enough, the Mets, who lost the first game of that double-header, played another double-header the next day, the second game of that twin-set went 13 innings, and the Mets lost both games to finish the year at 112 losses.
Mets fans can laugh about those teams now, not least of all because they have Matt Harvey. *Actually, Gardner is one of three pitchers to post a 112 game score in his first 20 major league appearances, but he was by far the most recent. The others were both Tigers: Les Mueller in 1945 (19 2/3 IP) and Eric Erickson in 1918 (16 IP).