Steven Matz electrifies at plate, on mound with historic debut for Mets
Step right up and greet Steven Matz. Called up from Triple A Las Vegas to make his major league debut on Sunday, the Mets' rookie pitcher impressed on the mound and at the plate, throwing 7 2/3 innings to earn his first big-league win in New York's 7–2 victory and going 3 for 3 at the plate, driving in four runs. In doing so, the 24-year-old lefty become the first pitcher ever to record that many hits and RBIs combined in his first game, and just the 11th player all time to accomplish that feat.
“He's as advertised,” manager Terry Collins told reporters after the game. “Good stuff, threw strikes, used all his pitches, moved the ball in and out. Very impressive.”
Matz's hitting exploits made him only the seventh pitcher since 1914 to pick up three or more hits in his first career game, becoming the first since the Rockies' Jason Jennings went 3 for 5 with a home run against the Mets on Aug. 23, 2001. Matz is the first Mets pitcher to collect three or more hits in his major league debut and the only pitcher ever for any franchise to drive in four or more runs in his first career game. He's also the first Met, position players included, to drive in four or more in his big-league debut.
Despite his historic day, Matz got off to a shaky start. Drawing the Reds in a series finale and what ended up being the second game of the day at Citi Field (following the conclusion of a game that was suspended by rain on Saturday), the New York native's first pitch went straight to the backstop. Four pitches later, Brandon Phillips cranked a ball to left-centerfield that banged off the fence just over the wall. The ball was initially ruled in play, with Phillips held to a single, but the Reds challenged, and umpires ruled on replay that Phillips's ball had in fact gone over the orange line in left that demarcates home runs, giving Cincinnati's second baseman a solo shot to lead off the game.
While Matz lost his battle with his first batter, he quickly bounced back, maneuvering around a two-out walk to Jay Bruce by striking out Marlon Byrd swinging to end the inning for the first whiff of his major league career. Matz pitched a clean second inning, then got his chance to make up for Phillips's home run in the bottom half of the frame. With a runner on third and two out, Reds manager Bryan Price intentionally walked No. 8 hitter Eric Campbell to get to Matz. Facing fellow rookie Josh Smith, Matz took a mighty hack at the first pitch, coming up empty, then smacked a 92-mph fastball over Billy Hamilton's head in centerfield, driving in a pair to give the Mets a 2–1 lead and send the home crowd, including his parents and grandparents, into a frenzy.
Matz followed his two-run double with a 1-2-3 third, but ran into trouble again in the fourth in the form of Todd Frazier. With none out and no one on, Frazier took a 95-mph fastball from Matz and belted it deep to left for a no-doubt-about-it solo homer to knot the game at two. Another walk to Bruce followed, but Matz got Byrd to fly out and then coaxed a ground ball to the mound from Brayan Pena to start a 1-6-3 double play. The fifth featured a leadoff single from Eugenio Suarez and a sacrifice bunt by Smith to move him into scoring position, but the rookie retired Hamilton and Phillips to keep things tied.
Matz struck again with his bat in the bottom of the fifth, following a Campbell walk with a single through the left side of the infield to put two on with nobody out. That set up Curtis Granderson, who ripped a line drive into the gap in right-centerfield to plate Campbell and give Matz a lead he wouldn't relinquish. The lefty worked a clean sixth, then once again got a chance to help his own cause at the plate in the bottom of the inning. With the bases loaded on two singles and a hit batter, Matz, facing reliever Pedro Villareal, got the count to 2–2, then lined a single over Phillips's outstretched glove into right-center to drive in two and push the Mets' lead to 5–2.
One final challenge awaited Matz in his debut, as the rookie gave up singles to Byrd and Pena to start the seventh. After a visit to the mound, Matz got a 6-4-3 double play off the bat of Suarez, then, with Byrd on third, finished the frame with a flourish by punching out pinch hitter Jason Bourgeois with his 100th pitch of the day, earning a standing ovation from the fans and yet another wild celebration from his family.
That seemed likely to be the end of Matz's day, but curiously, Collins sent the lefty out for the eighth. Matz got Hamilton to ground out and Ivan De Jesus Jr. to fly out, but he was unable to retire Joey Votto to finish the inning, walking the Reds' first baseman on his 110th pitch. Votto proved to be Matz's final hitter, as Collins came out and pulled the rookie, who walked to the dugout to his second standing ovation of the day. Reliever Carlos Torres came in and preserved Matz's fantastic day by getting Frazier to ground into a force out to end the eighth.
“We thought, we want to build up his pitch counts a little bit, so let's let him start the inning, and if he can get between 105 and 110 [pitches], we'll get him out of there,” Collins said afterward when asked about his decision to let Matz pitch the eighth.
“I was expecting to go back out there, so I was pretty happy they let me go back out there,” Matz said.
All told, Matz finished with 7 2/3 innings, giving up two runs on five hits and three walks, and striking out six. The lefty worked mostly with his four-seam fastball, sitting comfortably at 95–96 mph (even hitting 96 against Votto in the eighth) and topping out at 97, mixing in a curveball, changeup, two-seamer and splitter. Matz got 11 swings-and-misses on the day, mostly on his fastball and curve, and was efficient throughout his outing; after throwing 25 pitches in the first inning, the lefty didn't toss more than 15 in a frame from that point onward. Offensively, meanwhile, Matz provided a boost to a team that remains one of MLB's worst at the plate. Even after Sunday's win, New York is still 29th in the league in batting average (.235), 28th in slugging percentage (.364) and 27th in total runs (269, or 3.49 per game).
The impressive day means that Matz is likely here to stay in New York, although his role remains a question. On announcing his callup on Friday, general manager Sandy Alderson said the team would be implementing a six-man rotation, with Matz joining Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Bartolo Colon and Jon Niese. The Mets already tried a six-man rotation earlier this year to accommodate the return of Dillon Gee from the disabled list at the start of June, but his struggles and subsequent designation for assignment quickly led to that idea being scrapped.
With Matz now on board, the Mets will have to try to find space for all their young arms. One possible solution: jettisoning Niese. With a 4.12 ERA, 4.39 FIP and 92 ERA+, Niese has been the laggard of the rotation so far, but the 28-year-old lefty is under contract through 2016 with team options for '17 and '18. The Mets could try to dangle Niese to clubs in need of pitching, however, and according to a report earlier Sunday from Fox Sports's Ken Rosenthal, the Cubs and Dodgers have shown interest in him. Moving Niese would allow the Mets to go back to a regular five-man rotation, but as SI.com's Jay Jaffe wrote on Friday concerning Matz's promotion, one complicating factor there is possible innings limits for deGrom, Syndergaard and now Matz. Coming off 178 1/3 innings last season, deGrom is on pace for 220 this year, a substantial increase. The same is true for Syndergaard, who tossed 133 last year and is on pace for 163 this season, and Matz, who topped out at 198 frames in '14 but has already thrown 147 2/3 between the minors and majors in '15.
With that uncertainty regarding innings increases for their prized young arms, the Mets could conceivably keep the six-man rotation for the time being. Regardless of what the team does, however, it's clear that New York has a pitcher to keep in Matz—and maybe a hitter, too.