MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Cliff Lee's fall and rise a blueprint for Harvey

Cliff Lee's fall and rise a blueprint for Harvey

As was the case late last week, the Mets are extending the leash on struggling starter Matt Harvey, letting him make his next scheduled start on time, following another eye-catching, ERA-raising night against the Nationals, this one Tuesday's 7-4 loss.

This club has considered taking bold steps, including reportedly burning everything in Harvey's locker to allow him to symbolically start anew. Less novel, but likely more effective, was the idea of sending him down to the Minors. But the Mets are still content to let Harvey, who will start Memorial Day against the White Sox, work his issues out on the Major League mound.

The continued reluctance to option out a pitcher who means so much to the big-picture interests of the organization is understandable. But given their competitive state, the Mets can't reasonably let this situation linger much longer. If Harvey continues to get knocked around, a humbling step back to a lower level to master his mechanics and address his endurance issues might be in order -- and it might be the best for all parties in the long run.

Collins, Ricco on Harvey

I was covering the Indians in 2007, when they made the difficult decision to send Cliff Lee to Triple-A Buffalo. Lee had just never attained traction in that '07 campaign, missing time in Spring Training and the season's first month with an abdominal strain and then stumbling to a 6.38 ERA in 16 starts. The Tribe had wanted him to incorporate a slider into his repertoire, but he was stubborn with his pitch selection, and the results were ugly.

Lee was 28. Two years earlier, he had received some American League Cy Young Award votes after going 18-5 with a 3.79 ERA. And just one year earlier, Lee had signed a three-year, $14 million extension. He was supposed to be established, a big league fixture.

Mets will not skip Harvey's next start

The demotion enraged Lee. Looking back, that is precisely why it worked so well.

"His competitiveness has always been a strength for him," then-Indians GM Mark Shapiro said at the time. "He needs to use that competitiveness now to fuel himself to make adjustments."

Jenkins on Harvey's struggles

Those adjustments took time, and Lee was further angered when he rejoined the club as a September callup only to be banished to the bullpen and left off the postseason roster as Cleveland clawed its way to the AL Championship Series. He felt betrayed.

That offseason, pitching coach Carl Willis paid a personal visit to Lee. They talked about work and life. They agreed to scrap the slider plan and focus instead on fastball command in on righties and away from lefties. And once that command was established, Lee would start going away from righties and in on lefties with his changeup and two-seamer. He'd challenge hitters. Lee would punch and jab, making them respect his command to both sides of the plate.

How'd that go? Lee won the AL Cy Young Award in 2008. In 2009 and '10, he had some of the greatest stretches in postseason pitching history.

During the 2010 World Series, I asked Lee about '07.

"What I learned from 2007," he said, "is sometimes you struggle in this game. I had been used to having success, and it was the first time I had really struggled to that extent in my career. I used that as motivation to come in the next year and prove that that wasn't the real me."

Only time will tell if Harvey, at 27, is at a similar crossroads and can emerge with similar success.

But we know Harvey is equipped with the raw equipment to contend for the hardware Lee once won. Among the X-factors right now is the mental motivation. Clearly, something is amiss with Harvey's stamina within starts. He began Tuesday's outing flashing a mid-90s fastball, but the velocity tailed off as the outing evolved, and he got burned with his ineffective secondary stuff.

Nothing tells the tale of Harvey's season quite as well as these splits:

The first time through the order, opponents are hitting .241/.292/.373.

Second time: .301/.326/.518

Third: .509/.563/.764

We all know that in 2015, Harvey logged the most innings for a pitcher in his first season following Tommy John surgery, so that's an issue. But the above numbers make the increasing questions about the pounds he appears to have put on pointed, not personal. They also make many wonder if Harvey might benefit from some time away from the spotlight to work on his stuff and his stamina.

Harvey can change the entire course of this conversation if he silences the White Sox on Monday. It's not out of the question. How many pitchers would love to have a 96-mph fastball at their disposal while trying to reboot their career?

But if Harvey doesn't succeed, the Mets can't keep deferring to his opinion. Before Tuesday's outing, he told the Mets he wanted the ball, and they gave it to him. Had the Indians asked Lee in late July 2007 if he wanted to keep pitching in the bigs every fifth day, he undoubtedly would have answered in the affirmative. But the Tribe was 1 1/2 games out in the AL Central, a division it would go on to win in part because the club had the guts to pull the plug on Lee and let him work out his issues elsewhere.

Lee got angry, but he also got better. You can burn a guy's belongings all you want. Ultimately, though, all that matters is the fire burning inside of him.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.