Rookie doesn't have much experience, but club is confident in left-hander
By Marty Noble
NEW YORK -- Late in Spring Training 1987, mere days after the Mets had acquired David Cone, he was on the mound in a game against the Cardinals in St. Petersburg, Fla., 60-feet, six inches from fearsome slugger Jack Clark. The Mets and Cardinals were familiar adversaries. But Clark knew little about Cone. The 24-year-old pitcher had little big league experience, just a cup of coffee with the Royals the previous year.
Clark quickly became too familiar with Cone as the Mets rookie threw intense heat and searing sliders to him. He knew the pitcher wasn't Dwight Gooden or Ron Darling or Rick Aguilera, but he recognized him as one more strong-armed right-handed pitcher dressed in blue, white and orange.
"They've got another one," is all Clark said. But his tone told the story, and his mates understood fully. The team with the deepest and most dominating rotation in the National League had added a pitcher to make that set of starting pitchers deeper and potentially more dominant.
No doubt a similar "uh oh" thought passed through the minds of a few Cubs batters 10 nights ago. After being flummoxed, flattened and deflated by Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom in the first three games of the NL Championship Series, the Cubs were engaged in a survival game.
The Mets' starting pitcher was quite unfamiliar to them -- he wasn't the Dark Knight, Thor or the kid whose hair suggested he just had escaped from Def Leppard. The pitcher was Steven Matz.
After facing Harvey, Syndergaard and deGrom, facing the left-handed Matz would be a welcome change, something akin to the sense a fifth-grader develops when he enters his classroom and finds a substitute teacher. But then Matz unleashed his brand of heat and deception. He retired nine of his first 10 batters. You can imagine one of the Cubs' batters, upon returning to the dugout, issued a warning to his teammates: "They've got another one," or something to that effect.
By the end of the night, Matz was something less than a vivid image in the 8-3 victory that completed the Mets' unimaginable sweep of the Cubs and put the NLCS underdogs in the World Series. But he had done his job. The Mets had no misgivings in naming Matz their starter for Game 4 against the Royals.
Matz may prove to be something akin to what Gary Gentry was for the Mets in the 1969 World Series against the Orioles. The O's scouts had warned their players of the prowess of Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman and the remarkable velocity of Nolan Ryan. But to this day, those Orioles players say they were stunned by Gentry, the Game 3 starter. Gentry threw 6 2/3 scoreless innings against the favored O's before Ryan entered and earned a save and turned the Series to the Mets' favor.
Aware of the Cone-Clark scenario, Davey Johnson decades later recalled the Orioles' first exposure to Gentry. "Same thing," he said. "They've got another one!"
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The four runs the Mets put on the Wrigley Field scoreboards in the first inning of Game 4 of the NLCS put the Cubs well in arrears. And the 4 2/3 innings Matz provided put the Cubs decidedly down. The runs were a heavy punch to the Cubs' midsection, and Matz's pitching was a left-handed cross. The Cubs were staggered.
Partially because of a popup that fell near the right-field line and among three Mets defenders for a single in the fifth inning, Matz was removed in favor of his polar opposite, Bartolo Colon, who escaped the fifth and frustrated the Cubs through the sixth.
But it was Matz who had denied the Cubs when they still had some semblance of hope. They had begun Game 4 with the mindset of any team on the verge of being swept: "This game will be different." The Cubs would execute an about face, stave off elimination and put their postseason hopes in the hands of their best two starters, Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta, in Games 5 and 6.
That's what Matz faced in his eighth start in the big leagues, second in the postseason -- pressure to end the best-of-seven series before the Cubs could get right.
Folks with Mets memories will recall Game 6 of the NLCS in 1986. A victory against the Astros would put those Mets into the World Series. A loss would have them in a Game 7 against Mike Scott, who already had beaten them twice, allowing one run in 18 innings. The Mets survived Game 6 and saw no more of great Scott.
Those Mets wanted no part of Scott, these Mets didn't need second helpings of Lester and Arrieta. So they told a 24-year-old rookie, a pitcher who wasn't born until five years after the '86 showdown, save us from that perilous scenario. And with assistance from Colon, Addison Reed, Tyler Clippard and Jeurys Familia, Matz did. He had allowed four hits and two walks, and if not for that popup by Dexter Fowler that fell untouched, he probably would have emerged as the winning pitcher.
Matz had pitched 40 2/3 innings in the big leagues before Game 4 of the NLCS. He had pitched merely five times since July 5. So Matz's stamina was as limited as his experience. Yet he succeeded. The Mets are in the World Series for a lot of reasons, and he is one of them.
"We couldn't have asked for any more from him," manager Terry Collins said. "He's been in the big leagues for -- what? -- a couple of months, he had to get past an injury that took away the opportunity for him to get really acclimated to the big leagues. And he goes out against that team [the Cubs] and shuts them down for almost five innings? You kiddin' me? Any pitcher we had in that game was going to be on a short leash. We were in position to end the series. We had available arms. So why risk anything? He'd given us what we asked him for."
Matz was pleased with his performance and buoyed with the attaboys it prompted. His mates told him they had expected success. Dan Warthen, his pitching coach, had words of praise. And the box score provided undeniable evidence of a job well done.
But as Matz spoke late Friday afternoon before Game 3 of the World Series (7:30 p.m. ET air time on FOX, 8 p.m. game time), his assignment had been compared to a challenge. He won't merely be starting Game 4, this time he'll be asked to either help the Mets tie the World Series at 2 or avoid a sweep. What Matz witnessed in Games 1 and 2 sent a clear message: The Royals mean business.
When, last Saturday, Collins identified Matz as the Game 4 starter, he provided a pretty strong endorsement: "Obviously, we think Steven Matz showed us ... even though he hasn't pitched into the depth of the game like he's going to do in the future, but boy I'll tell you what, for four or five innings, he's been pretty good."
So yes, it seems these Mets have another one. They think so; they are asking a lot of him.
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.