Steven Matz didn’t do himself very many favors in his first three innings pitched last night. Despite piecing together six strikeouts against a Pittsburgh Pirates lineup that boasts lowest strikeout rate in the National League (19.9%), Matz allowed four runs on a pair of two-run homers, and threw just 40 of his first 72 pitches for strikes.
Each at-bat seemed a textbook game of back-and-forth early on for the lefty, as he found himself in just three 0-2 counts across this stretch. One such at-bat ended with an opposite-field single off the bat of Jordan Luplow. The two home runs themselves, one from David Freese in the first and the other from Josh Harrison in the third, followed in the other two instances.
Even with the encouraging onslaught of strikeouts, Matz seemed to lack authority, falling into 2-2 and 3-2 counts at seemingly every turn. To be clear, he only walked two and surrendered three total hits. As the case has been in nearly every start he’s made since the beginning of May, Steven Matz was composed and methodical. But with even one baserunner bringing the top of the order back to the dinner table in the fourth inning, it had become clear that the pattern of shirking damage was wearing thin.
At this point, the Stony Brook lefty turned on a switch that perhaps hadn’t been touched at any other point in the season. Following three supporting runs from his offense, Matz turned in a 15-pitch, fourth inning, void of baserunners and complete with a struck out side. The strikeout of relief pitcher Tyler Glasnow was Matz’s ninth and last of the evening – tying his career-high for punchouts in a single game. And the last time Matz fanned a side? April 7 against the Washington Nationals.
Now at 87 pitches at the start of the fifth inning, Matz desperately needed a scoreless inning, or simply anything to keep his team afloat in what had otherwise been a tug-of-war of extra-base hits. 11 pitches, two popouts, and a routine 6-3 putout later, Matz was back in the dugout, now having retired seven batters in a row. Entrusted with the sixth, the lefty went out with one last bang, throwing six of eight for strikes in another spotless inning. The Mets rewarded him with another three-spot in the seventh inning, before running away with a 12-6 dismemberment of the Bucs’ pitching staff.
Admitting to some feelings of tightness in the early going, Matz went through what has become a relatively common process of explaining how he managed to adapt and overcome the adversity: “I definitely felt like I settled in… It was almost like I got a little tired and I was able to stay smooth instead of muscle up a little bit. And that works… I think it helped me out for sure.”
While Matz’s season ERA crept up further to 3.79 and the home run bug still managed to bite and leave a mark, virtually every other stat of his saw some form of improvement, between his strikeout-to-walk ratio, hard-hit rate, and winning percentage (not that it should mean much anyway). Over his final three innings, Matz needed just 34 total pitches, maintaining a velocity between 93-94 mph that could have passed as 94-95 given the action on his sinker.
“We’re really happy with the progress he’s made,” added manager Mickey Callaway after the team’s third win in a row. “He’s always been a worker. I think he’s working on a lot of the right things that [Dave Eiland] has really helped implement. It’s been fun to watch. He’s been really, really good out there. It’s been fun.”
While he’s consistently shown improvement from his debacle in 2017, Matz’s starts haven’t necessarily signified “fun” in terms of his efficiency and composure quite like they have over the past few weeks. His growth becomes more apparent with every inning, and after making particular progress between the two halves of last night’s start, it may be time his year receive more credit than just a step in the right direction.