WASHINGTON -- Though Matt Harvey stood on the foul line last Opening Day in New York, taking in all the sights and sounds of the spectacle, this year at Nationals Park seemed somehow different. As Harvey toed the third-base line Monday afternoon, he did so with the knowledge that he was three days away from climbing atop the mound and pitching in a game of his own.
"Opening Day is such a special day as it is," Harvey said. "To be back, and hear your name announced, and know that you're pitching in a couple of days, it's fun for everybody. I know I was there last year in New York, but to be actually scheduled to play this year definitely makes a big difference."
That scheduled appearance will become a reality Thursday, when Harvey opposes Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals in a 1:05 p.m. ET game at Nationals Park. It will be Harvey's first game in 593 days, following Tommy John surgery in October 2013 and a nearly 18-month rehab.
Over that time, Harvey transformed from a frustrated patient with his arm in a cast, unable to throw at all, to the same type of pitcher he was before the operation: capable of throwing 99 mph with a wicked slider, curveball and dastardly change. He has clashed with the Mets on certain issues of his rehab and metaphorically hugged it out with them, both privately and through the media. He has talked about the importance of throwing for the first time after surgery, then of tossing off a mound for the first time, then of pitching in a Spring Training game, then finally of appearing in a real live game that matters.
Now, Harvey is tired of talking. He's ready to pitch.
"It's a huge thing for everybody in baseball," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "This is one of the great, great players in the game, and you love to watch him."
It is perhaps poetic that Harvey will oppose Strasburg in his return. As Harvey rehabbed, Strasburg and Nationals teammate Jordan Zimmermann were two of the people he connected with most often to ask questions about the process, about the types of things he could expect. Strasburg, in turn, consistently offered well-wishes.
The Nationals right-hander was also Harvey's opponent on April 19, 2013, which wound up being something of a coming-out-party for Harvey. Outdueling Strasburg that day as fans chanted "HAR-VEY'S BET-TER!" all around the park, the newest Mets superstar found himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated less than a month later, and on the All-Star Game mound two months after that. He remained on top of the baseball world until August, when tests revealed a partially-torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
Ever since that day, Harvey has been working his way back.
"We're all looking forward to it," he said. "I'm excited to go back to work [Thursday]."
Though Harvey's goal is to keep things as normal as possible, that is not entirely realistic. Both his parents are driving down from Connecticut for the game, with his mother playing hooky from work -- and she won't be the only Mets fan to do so. The Mets will limit his pitch count to something around 90, amidst some cold, damp weather conditions.
But Harvey insists that none of that matters. What matters is he's back.
"I think because of the work that's been done in Spring Training and the buildup that we've had, I don't really imagine that anything's going to be too much different," Harvey said. "But I really don't know until I get out there. As of now, I don't feel any different than any other start. I'm excited to get things going and put the injury behind me."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.