It was a 3-0 fastball to Evan Longoria that took what little wind there was out of Steven Matz‘s sails – a good six minutes into the ballgame, no less. The ball traveled into the back of the field-level seats in left field, giving San Francisco Giants an early 2-0 lead and pushing the lefty’s first-inning ERA up to 10.19 as his voyage for the game’s first out continued.
As the case had been in his disheartening return from the disabled list at Citizens Bank Park last week (four earned runs on five hits in two innings that led to a loss), Matz’s fastball was moving perfectly fine, if not a little quicker than it had earlier in the season. Hitting 96 mph a couple of times, the lefty’s once-lauded control now seemed a distant memory, with the product we had now become accustomed to inspiring no confidence whatsoever.
Any fan who flipped the TV off and went to sleep would probably need a double-take upon finding out that Matz had not only gone five innings, but also allowed just one baserunner through the rest of his night. This was not the near-no-hitter from two summers ago, nor was it anything remotely rivaling the complete game that Jacob deGrom turned in on Sunday. But for a pitcher who has had his grit and resilience impugned by fans and writers alike, Matz was a pleasant surprise in last night’s 6-2 victory.
“I think [the home run] riled him up a little bit, but he was able to come into the dugout, settle down in between innings. I saw that focus, that routine in between innings, in between pitches, and I saw a more relaxed pitcher out there than I had seen recently,” said manager Mickey Callaway following the game. “When he can just relax and let his movement work and be free and easy, he’s going to have success, and that’s what we saw maybe those last four innings that we hadn’t seen the previous few starts and maybe the first inning today.”
The Giants have some ugly numbers against left-handed pitching this year, featuring a .686 OPS and 7.6% walk rate, but they’ve also managed a .265 average since the start of the second half and have posted a hard-hit rate of 35.1% in that time – beating out such offensive juggernauts as the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs, and Philadelphia Phillies.
Given the beating the Phillies put on Matz his last ride out, it’s fair to say that if there had been blood in the water, the Giants would have taken advantage… perhaps even more so given the fact that the Phillies, despite their field day not too long ago, still rank behind the Giants in every one of the aforementioned statistics (except for walks, which they arguably supplement with a far-higher strikeout rate of 23%). We were no longer watching a pitcher with bad stuff who was conveniently slipping through the cracks this time around.
In fact, there were a few occasions last night in which Matz seemed to teeter on the brink, clawing his way out of full counts and long-winded at-bats against the likes of Nick Hundley and Chase d’Arnaud that took a toll on his pitch count. It has never been particularly easy to expect Matz to either trust his offspeed pitches or resolutely command his fastball. After Longoria’s home run landed, however, a light seemed to turn on for the Stony Brook native. He exited the first frame with 27 pitches, but was forced to work for his reprieve, inducing a 6-3 groundout from Hunter Pence on an arduous nine pitches before finishing a three-up, three-down inning five pitches later.
Fresh off a 15-pitch second, Matz worked his way through a 14-pitch third, whiffing his first two hitters on a collection of curveballs, sliders, and fastballs that actually bit inside corners to righties. An issue that has long plagued Matz, the bailing, outside-bleeding fastball didn’t have much of a say, if any, in last night’s contest. For the most part, we got to watch a pitcher challenging hitters and reaping benefits. The third inning ended after d’Arnaud flew out to right field on another payoff pitch.
11 pitches (eight for strikes) told a fairly complete story of a spotless fourth inning for Matz. With his fastball still sitting at 95 mph and a sneaky cutter throwing his opponents off-balance, Matz ended the inning by retiring his 11th straight batter – his most recent baserunner (to that point) being Longoria himself.
“I had a little better fastball command. Still a lot of room for improvement but definitely a step in the right direction,” Matz said in his post-game interview.
As it often goes, Matz lost a bit of his touch from the previous three innings, but still held his own by hanging another zero. The inning started with another Pence at-bat that filled the meter all the way, but again ended with a routine groundout – this time thanks to the changeup. After Gorkys Hernandez got ahead 3-1 and pulled a double to left field, the Giants had a chance to add to their two-run lead as Matz’s fastball dipped back into the 93-94 mph range. He worked a 1-3 putaway out of Alen Hanson on a sharp cutter before a quick mound visit from pitching coach Dave Eiland. With the opposing pitcher Chris Stratton standing in, Matz picked up the rosin bag, opened the toolbox, and struck him out on three perfectly-spotted pitches to end his night.
Of the 18 men who came up against Matz, 14 received first-pitch strikes – quite a hefty improvement over his 54% first-strike rate this year. While his ERA only fell from 4.60 to 4.55, the five strikeouts, one walk, and two hits allowed all came together for a 57 game score – his highest since the nine-strikeout start against the Pittsburgh Pirates before the Nationals mauled him into a DL stint the following week. The 87 pitches thrown made for his highest count since that start as well.
Hopefully, the momentum that helped the Mets kick off last night’s comeback can continue following Matz as the Nationals come back to town this weekend and get another crack at him. The Mets have reached a critical juncture in their season in which future roles begin taking shape. With last night’s start under his belt and a journey back to the surface underway, it’s time for Matz to etch his name into the team’s plans with a push of his own.