It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Sports Illustrated called it “The most hyped pitching debut the game had ever seen.” Retailers couldn’t keep his jersey in stock due to demand. And when Stephen Strasburg made his debut the 21-year-old phenom did not disappoint. He compiled a 2.91 ERA. In 68 innings he fanned 92 batters while walking just 17.
And then, like a meteor blazing across the sky, Strasburg flamed out. Tommy John surgery. He would not pitch again for 18 months.
In 2012, the Nationals at 98-64, had the best record in Baseball and were heavily favored to win it all. But manager Davey Johnson and team execs faced an agonizing decision: Shut down their ace his first year back or risk injury in an attempt to win the first championship in franchise history, a history that began over four decades ago in Montreal.
It was decided that with 159 1/3 innings under his belt the gamble to become champions wasn’t worth risking the possibility of a career ending injury. Strasburg was shut down.
Washington promptly got knocked out in the first round.
Meanwhile, in New York, fans were chomping at the bit anticipating the arrival of our own young phenom, Matt Harvey. Not since Gregg Jefferies had a Mets rookie undergone this much hype. In 2012, pitching in AAA, Harvey was erratic. Sandy Alderson and Terry Collins insisted Harvey would not be brought up anytime soon.
Then, they had a change of heart.
Johan Santana got injured, the fan base was in a malaise, there were plenty of empty seats at Citi Field. Despite the Mets going nowhere and being 11 ½ GB in late July, the earlier decision was negated and Harvey was called up.
Like Strasburg two seasons earlier, Harvey was the face of a bright future, the tip of a sword. And like Strasburg, Harvey didn’t disappoint. He fanned 70 batters in 59 IP and compiled a 2.73 ERA.
In 2013, Harvey continued his dominance, but the innings were piling up. At 24 years-old he was not just the ace, but the workhorse of the staff. By the time he started the All-Star Game at Citi Field in July, Harvey was on pace to toss 235 innings, the most by any Mets starter since 1990.
Then it happened… Matt Harvey, The Dark Knight of Gotham, the new face of the franchise, the guy who packed the ballpark during every home start, the most electric Met starting pitcher since Dwight Gooden toed the rubber, the heartthrob who appeared in magazines and on late night talk shows, and most importantly, the pitcher who had a 2.27 ERA and whiffed more than one batter per inning for a team looking for a new identity…suffered a partial tear in his ulnar collateral ligament.
Like Strasburg, Harvey would undergo Tommy John.
In 2015, impelled by young power arms and a one-man wrecking crew named Yoenis Cespedes, the Mets found themselves in a pennant race for the first time in almost a decade. All the while Harvey, first year back from Tommy John, was again piling up innings.
We all remember the back and forth, the he-said-he-said that ensued between Scott Boras, Terry Collins, Dr. James Andrews and Sandy Alderson. And Matt Harvey, lightning rod for bloggers and fans alike, was caught in the middle. It was unwinnable predicament.
If he decided to sit out and put his health above the team’s wants, it would fly in the face of the tough guy image he’d personified since his debut. The mixture of love and hate he’d gotten over his brief career would lean towards the latter. Fans would scorn him as a sham, all talk and no action. The media would tear the guy to shreds. Yet, if he kept pitching, he would put his career and future on the line, a career where he likely could earn hundreds of millions of dollars.
Like the Nats years earlier, the Mets now faced a similar dilemma: Shut down their star his first year back or risk injury trying to win the first championship in almost thirty years. Unlike the Nats, the Mets allowed Harvey to keep going, despite already tossing over 189 innings.
To digress for a moment, I will state I personally never was a fan of Harvey. Yes, he was good, damn good. But he knew it. Unlike Tom Seaver or Doc Gooden who understood their ability but remained professional about it, Harvey seemed to relish his own hype and delight in his arrogance how talented he was. Yet, all things considered, what had he accomplished? He never won a Cy Young or Rookie of the year like Seaver and Doc, he never won a championship like Seaver and Doc. I viewed him as a lot of bluster. And his prima donna attitude surely didn’t help.
But in the World Series, I jumped on the Matt Harvey train. In 40+ years of watching this game Harvey’s actions going to the top of the 9th in Game 5 was something I’ll never forget. The guy acted like an ace, like a star, like a true competitor. The guy has balls.
Terry Collins reneged his earlier decision to pull his ace and allowed Harvey to take the mound with a 2-0 lead in a must-win game. Harvey, first year back from Tommy John surgery and with 216 innings under his belt, the most any pitcher in history ever tossed after coming back, walked the lead-off batter, Lorenzo Cain.
And Terry Collins didn’t budge.
The rest is history.
Seven months after losing to Kansas City, Harvey is yet again in the crosshairs of controversy. He is having the worst year of his career, many insisting he voluntarily request to be sent down to work on his mechanics. Some feel that blowing the 2-0 lead in the 9th got in his head. Donnie Moore and Mitch Williams, two great closers in their day, were never the same after allowing crushing post-season home runs. Is Harvey the latest casualty?
Fans are quick to blame him. And granted, his prima donna attitude and now, avoiding the press after a terrible outing doesn’t help. Yet, no one blames Terry Collins for sticking with him for too long. No one blames Lucas Duda for making an errant throw that allowed Hosmer to score and cement the Mets World Series loss. All the finger pointing is at Matt Harvey.
Maybe it is in his head.
Or maybe the fact that Harvey, with the Mets’ blessing, threw more innings than anyone ever had after TJ surgery, has reinjured himself. The fact that his stats are awful two months after throwing 216 innings is not a coincidence. He put his team ahead of his career, ahead of his livelihood, ahead of his own health. And is now suffering the scorn of a livid fan base and damning media.
A few years back, Washington looked long term and put the health of their ace ahead of the wants of their fans. Since returning from his surgery, the highest ERA Strasburg has recorded is a very respectable 3.46. Currently, he is 8-0 with a 2.79 ERA. He is averaging 11.4 K’s per 9 innings.
On the flip side Matt Harvey is 3-7 with a 6.08 ERA.
You know things are bad when Bryce Harper, widely regarded by many as the biggest jerk in the game, upon hearing Harvey booed by Mets “fans” actually stated he “feels bad” for the guy. A new low. Opposing players are now pitying our one-time ace.
Washington recently awarded Strasburg with a 7-year deal worth $175 million. While Nats fans are thrilled to see Strasburg pitching for them until 2022, Mets fans are apprehensive about Harvey starting on Monday.
Last year Matt Harvey was pushed more than any pitcher in history. And now we are seeing the results. The man who represented the hope of the future may very well have his best days in the past. Was it worth it?