NEW YORK -- Through this season's first five months, no Mets pitcher had engendered more hope than Matt Harvey, the franchise's best pitcher and its engine for future optimism. But Harvey's season almost certainly came to an end on Monday, and his 2014 campaign is in jeopardy as well.
Harvey has a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, the Mets learned Monday, and is unlikely to pitch again this year. Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery, which would sideline him for most if not all of next season, is one treatment option.
"This is sort of the last thing we expected," manager Terry Collins said.
The Mets learned of Harvey's injury after sending him for an MRI exam Monday morning at Manhattan's Hospital for Special Surgery. Harvey and the Mets will determine over the next few weeks whether the right-hander will undergo surgery or attempt to pitch through the partial tear.
"When I heard the news, I was pretty shocked," Harvey said. "I'm still very optimistic. I'm going to do everything I can so that I don't have to get surgery."
As recently as 48 hours ago, Harvey was presumably healthy, set for a much-anticipated Saturday matchup against Max Scherzer and the Tigers. But Harvey gave up a career-high 13 hits that day and admitted to being "pretty tired" afterward, a rare admission of fallibility from the typically brash right-hander.
A day later, he told team officials that he was experiencing an abnormal level of forearm discomfort. The Mets sent him for an MRI, which revealed the tear.
"I didn't feel a snap," Harvey said. "I didn't feel a pop. No tingling or anything like that. It was just some tightness in my forearm -- that's why I was pretty shocked."
"We're going to do the prudent thing," general manager Sandy Alderson said of Harvey, who will be placed on the disabled list later this week, with Carlos Torres assuming his rotation spot. "We're not going to do anything to jeopardize Matt's future with the Mets. I wouldn't expect him to pitch the rest of the season."
Prudence is something the Mets have exercised throughout Harvey's career, shutting him down last September on an innings limit with plans to do so again this season. Ever mindful of Harvey's pitch counts and innings totals, the Mets hoped to unleash him without any limits for the first time next year.
Now, that blueprint may change. Tommy John surgery typically requires a recovery period of 12-18 months, meaning Harvey may not pitch again until 2015.
For the Mets, that is the worst-case scenario. The best case is that Harvey strengthens the area around his elbow, foregoes surgery and returns in time for Opening Day 2014. But big league history is littered with stories of pitchers playing through partial elbow ligament tears, only to undergo Tommy John surgery at a future date.
If Harvey does undergo surgery, Tommy John operations have improved to the point that most pitchers return with their previous velocity -- in Harvey's case, as fast as 100 miles per hour -- fully intact.
"They can fix this," Collins said. "Not that it's a bright side to look at right now, but certainly Matt will be fixed, and he'll come back as good as ever."
While Monday's news caught the organization by surprise, Alderson acknowledged that Harvey has been receiving treatment for right forearm tightness for much of this season. Though Harvey sidestepped a question regarding his forearm, and Collins said he was unaware of it until Sunday, Alderson made it clear that Harvey had been pitching at something less than 100 percent.
"This has been the longest that something has been this tight over a long period of time," Harvey said. "I've obviously had issues before, getting tight, as is expected with throwing a lot of innings and throwing as hard as I do. You're going to get sore. This was just something I couldn't quite shake, and with all the treatment, it wasn't going away."
The news also sheds some light on the unpredictability of pitcher injuries; despite everything the Mets have done to protect his right arm since the day he was drafted, Harvey tore a ligament in his elbow anyway.
"This is always a risk associated with Major League pitching," Alderson said. "These innings limits are not a guarantee of anything, and they're certainly not based on any science that will tell you that, 'If you don't do this, you're safe.' There is no safe harbor here."
Collins recalled his time as the Dodgers' Minor League field coordinator, when Los Angeles imported a team of medical professionals led by Frank Jobe -- the surgeon who performed the first ligament-replacement operation on Tommy John in 1974 -- to sketch out a framework for protecting pitchers.
The last thing Jobe said before leaving, Collins recalled, was that there is no avoiding most injuries.
"No matter how hard you try, if they're going to break, they're going to break," Collins remembered Jobe saying. "And there's not a pitch count or an innings limit you can designate to ever save them."
That is a sobering reflection for an organization that has now lost starting pitchers Harvey, Jenrry Mejia and Jeremy Hefner to season-ending injuries, and only recently welcomed Jon Niese back following a two-month recovery from a shoulder injury.
Still, none of those pitchers is as critical to the team's future as Harvey, who established himself as one of the game's best pitchers by going 9-5 with a 2.27 ERA, 191 strikeouts and 31 walks in 26 games this season. Harvey's starts had become events. His future was limitless.
"It's unfortunate from Matt's point of view, and it's unfortunate from the standpoint of the organization," Alderson said. "On the other hand, these are the kinds of things that happen in the game. The successful teams, the successful organizations, respond to these setbacks, and that's exactly what we have to do. This is not a career-ending injury by any stretch of the imagination.
"This news was tough today, there's no question about it, and the full implication of it probably has not yet been felt. But we have to respond. And we will."