Mets' rookie growing up fast, earns confidence of manager to face Harper in eighth
By Paul Hagen
WASHINGTON -- Here was the devil's bargain Mets manager Terry Collins faced with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning Wednesday afternoon at Nationals Park. Reigning National League MVP Bryce Harper was at the plate, representing the tying run. Closer Jeurys Familia was ready to go in the bullpen.
Collins, instead, stuck with rookie right-hander Steven Matz. This was a big game for the Mets, as games in May go. But some things matter more than one victory.
"I think when you have a young player, there are certain situations where you have to challenge them. And that was one of them, for me. Look, if he's going to be a big winner for us, if he's going to pitch in big games, he's got to learn how to get those guys out in tough situations," Collins explained.
Two sinkers missed the strike zone, the second pitch in the dirt. Pitching coach Dan Warthen glanced over at the manager. "We'll find out what he's made of right here," he said.
Harper took a called strike then grounded out to shortstop to end the inning. The Mets won, 2-0. They also learned a little more about the 24-year-old who is now 7-1 with a 2.36 ERA this season and 11-1 in 14 starts in his big league career; the Mets are 12-2 in those games.
Collins admitted that he's been a little surprised at how easy Matz has made it look so far.
"A little bit," he said. "But you know, when he came up [last season] I saw plus stuff. Now it's a matter of making sure his health stays to the point where he can be consistent in going to the mound. Because I think he's got a chance to win a lot of games.
"I think he believes he belongs here now. He knows he's part of a very, very good pitching staff. We count on him a lot when he goes out there, and I think he can pick his game up. Maybe a lot of people don't buy into it, but this guy has pitched big games in his career. He's not afraid of the challenge."
Steven Matz, an NL ROY favorite and the fastest-paced pitcher in baseball, improves to 7-0 with a 1.13 ERA over his last seven starts.
It was the first time any of the Nationals' hitters had seen Matz, who missed two months last season and has already skipped a start this year with tightness in his elbow and forearm. So it was a matter of meet the Matz, meet the Matz, step right up and ... well, pretty much sit right back down.
He allowed four singles, two of which didn't make it out of the infield. He walked one while striking out seven. And he did it against a team that hit five home runs the night before.
Matz appreciated the confidence the manager showed in him by letting him face Harper.
"As a competitor, you don't want to come out in that situation," he said. "When the manager leaves you out there to face the greatest hitter in the game right now, it helps your confidence. I got a little excited [with the first two pitches], but then I just stepped off and calmed myself down."
Of course, there are other reasons why Matz should feel good about himself. He has won seven straight starts, the first Met to do that since Steve Trachsel in 2006. He has allowed two or fewer earned runs in each of those games, tying Atlanta's Julio Teheran for the longest active streak this season. His ERA in that stretch is 1.13.
Said Collins: "He's just got great confidence in the command of his stuff. You're just looking at a guy who's throwing any pitch he wants to throw, knowing he can throw it for a strike. Making pitches. He made just big pitches with his fastball. Gets ahead in the count, and when you get ahead you can expand a little bit. And he's been able to do that."
In the pivotal at-bat against Harper, though, he threw nothing but 93-94 mph sinkers to get the job done.
"I just feel really comfortable on the mound right now," he said. "[Catcher Rene Rivera] called a great game. I really credit him. He kept me in that good rhythm."
After losing two out of three to the Nationals at Citi Field last week, the Mets bounced back to win two of three from the Nationals with Wednesday's victory. That has some significance considering that these two teams will probably fight it out all summer for the National League East title, which means not having to deal with the anything-can-happen roulette of the Wild Card Game. It also could help set a tone in case they meet again later in the playoffs.
And, finally, it helped everybody forget another rough start by Matt Harvey on Tuesday night. In the end, Collins didn't have to make a choice at all. He got the win while also helping prepare Matz for whatever may come next.
The only thing Matz lacks, it seems, is the kind of national profile that most of the Mets' starters have. Collins laughed.
"He's going to get plenty of publicity. Don't be fooled. He's making a name for himself in this league, and it's going to get around fast," the manager said.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.