By Adam Cancryn
On a historic, fascinating, season-saving prodigy named Matt Harvey.
It’s Sunday afternoon, and Harvey Day is winding down.
Televisions go dark. Bars empty. WFAN, the City’s source for ceaseless sports chatter, turns its attention elsewhere. Harvey Day is over. Just four more days until the next one.
This is how you measure a lost season. Take away Harvey Day, and the Mets are 14-27, one of the worst and least inspiring teams in baseball. They don’t hit. New York’s team batting average is .226, second-to-last in the National League, and their on-base and slugging percentages don’t rank much better. They don’t field. Fangraphs’ advanced stats rank the Mets’ defense somewhere on a scale between “poor” and “awful.” And perhaps worst of all, there’s no hope. In four out of five games, the 2013 squad is the latest in a too-long line of forgettable Mets teams. There’s more than half a season left, but already the games don’t matter.
But on Harvey Day, that changes. Well okay, the Mets still can’t hit, and they’re still absolute butchers in the field. So maybe a better way of putting it is that all the stuff that makes the Mets miserable to watch just doesn’t matter. Because on Harvey Day, New York’s 24-year-old phenom — the ace, the prodigy the Great Hope of Blue-and-Orange Nation — takes the mound. And when that happens, it seems anything is possible.
THAT MIGHT SOUND like a whole lot to attribute to a kid two years and 19 big league starts removed from college. But consider: Matthew Edward Harvey is 5-0 with a 2.17 ERA. He strikes out more than one batter an inning, and allows fewer hits over that same period than any other starter in the National League. His 12 consecutive outings without a loss is a Mets record. Compare his output so far with more than 60 years of team history, and the often the only player close to him is another pitcher who made his name as a precocious fireballer: Dwight Gooden.
Most impressive, though, is that he’s doing it on his own. The sorry cast of middling veterans and quadruple-A level youngsters behind him have offered little support. Harvey threw nine innings of one-hit ball agains the White Sox on May 7, a sterling performance that manager Terry Collins ranked above Johan Santana’s 2012 no-hitter. Inside Edge scouting service couldn’t find even one “well-hit” ball that Chicago put in play against him. It would have been the best win in Harvey’s brief career.
There was just one problem. While Harvey was busy mowing down the Sox lineup, the Mets’ hitters weren’t faring any better. He would leave with the game tied 0-0, resigned to yet another no decision. It was his third of seven no decisions so far, starts that included a seven-inning, two-run outing versus the Pirates and an eight-inning, 10-strikeout masterpiece last week against the Yankees.
For fans of other teams, ones with winning records or clear futures, that might be frustrating. But Mets fans recognize that without Harvey there to gut out such games, they might have never even been in them from the start. Harvey represents a real chance to win, an equalizer on a team that, four out of five games, trots out on the field already at a severe disadvantage. On days he pitches, 35% more televisions viewers aged 25 to 54 tune in. On those days, there is hope. It’s Harvey Day.
THANKS TO HARVEY, the Mets also have more time: to rebuild and to figure out where exactly this team is headed. When the Mets installed Sandy Alderson as general manager in 2010, he pledged a deliberate, focused rebuilding effort. The team was in the midst of a post-Madoff financial crisis, and spent the next years shedding millions in payroll. It took itself out of the running for valuable free agents and big-name trades as part of self-imposed austerity.
The result is a Mets team where the highest-paid outfielder plays for the Mariners. The second highest-paid outfielder last took the field for New York in 1999. Their most expensive pitcher is likely done for good. As a business and an organization, the Mets are a mess. Prior to the season, popular thought was that if the Wilpon family didn’t have to sell the franchise to cover their own financial issues, the fans’ frustration would convince them to cash out anyway.
With Harvey at the top of the rotation, though, that anger has largely dissipated. Where fed-up fans might have convinced the Mets to abandon their long-term plans in favor of an ill-advised play for City tabloids’ back pages, they are instead more content to wait out a season full of blowouts, dropped balls and stranded runners. They can see a future with Harvey and fellow pitcher Zach Wheeler dominating NL lineups, while top prospect Travis D’Arnaud sparks a resurgent offense. They can see a pathway to a winning season, to a playoff berth, to a September that means something. They can see it every fifth game, on Harvey Day.
OF COURSE, WE’VE been here before. Dwight Gooden’s shooting star quickly crashed to Earth. Nobody talks anymore about the supposed super-trio of Bill Pulsipher, Paul Wilson and Jason Isringhausen, the last pitching prospects to inspire enthusiasm in the way that Harvey does. There was Alex Escobar and Jason Tyner, and even Jose Reyes. All failed to bring a title to Queens.
Harvey could be the next one. He was never supposed to be this good, pessimists will point out. Young pitchers are also the most susceptible to career-killing injuries, they’ll add. A tweak or a pull and the phenom — the ace, the prodigy, the Great Hope — could be another bust.
All that is true, and any Mets fan will admit to a bit of fear every time Harvey is up on the hill. The Marlins on Sunday knocked him around for four runs on 10 hits, marking Harvey’s worst start of the season. Though it’s just one outing, the question looms: Is this where cruel reality starts? Is this where the dream ends?
But for once in the hangdog saga of the New York Mets, those worries are buried under layers of optimism. Here is a mature, professional pitcher, all preparation and no preening. He’s brutally honest: “I’m not happy about the start at all,” Harvey said after his game against the Marlins. “There are very slight amount of positives I take from today. I’ve got to be better and move on.” And he’s got a competitive streak you can see in the way he stalks around the mound. His mound. He pitches his heart out in games that don’t matter, driven to dominate at a time when the Mets are doing anything but. That’s got to be worth something, right?
Mets fans hope it is. They hope it’s worth a bunch of playoff wins, and maybe a title or two. They hope it’s worth hoping for.
For now thought, they know it’s at least worth a celebration. It’s Sunday, and Harvey Day is winding down. Just four more days until Harvey Day.
Adam Cancryn is an editor and co-founder of Began in ‘96.