In his first September start since the end of the 2015 season, Steven Matz fired on all cylinders. He built off his recent success with perhaps his most dominant performance of the season, striking out a career-high eleven batters across seven innings of one-run, three-hit baseball in the Mets’ extra-innings victory over the San Francisco Giants. Matz’s 76 game score was the highest since his near-no-hitter (82) over two years ago (August 14, 2016) against the San Diego Padres.
The X factor – as it has been through most of the year for Matz – was control of the fastball. All in all, the lefty threw 68 of his 93 pitches for strikes while walking just one batter. The only run he allowed came on a solo homer from Evan Longoria to lead off the fourth inning – the second such time the third baseman has gone deep off of him in as many games.
But the bomb would ultimately prove to be a highlight of sorts for Matz, as he proceeded to strike out the side. Better yet, the Stony Brook native came back out with an eight-pitch fifth inning to keep the Giants in check as he slowly came back into form. Longoria’s at-bat was the last in a line of five plate appearances that received just one first-pitch strike.
Of the other 20 hitters Matz had faced, 17 received first-pitch strikes, with Austin Slater being the only such Giant to reach a 1-0 count after Longoria’s homer (Matz notched 18 first-pitch strikes out of 25, for those interested in the overall figure). Slater would reach on an infield hit later in this at-bat (he was responsible for both of the Giants’ other two hits off Matz), but was erased just one pitch later, as Matz immediately pulled a 4-6-3 double play out of Longoria to stay in control. This sort of resilience that had characterized Matz’s initial renaissance in late May and early June showed itself at other moments in the afternoon, both before and after the home run.
After Joe Panik led off the second inning with a walk and reached second on a sacrifice bunt, Matz fell behind Gorkys Hernandez 3-1 in both a familiar and unsettling fashion. He spotted a fastball beautifully along the inside corner to induce a lazy flyout to left before getting Slater on a soft groundout to third. The Giants would not put another runner in scoring position against Matz for the rest of the day.
The only other remote conflict on Matz’s ledger came with two outs in the seventh, after Amed Rosario booted a routine ground ball to extend the inning. Just as he had with Nick Hundley and Brandon Belt to open the frame, however, Matz struck out his next hitter, Alen Hanson, with a fastball up in the zone to fan the side for a third time as he slammed the door shut on his longest inning (only 18 pitches).
Now at 4.20, Matz’s ERA continues its slow descent back to viability with his third impressive start. He has allowed just four earned runs, three walks, and ten hits in his last 19 innings of work, which include 23 strikeouts. While his fastball did most of the talking as he got out ahead early, Matz masterfully retired of his eleven strikeout victims with offspeed pitches.
“That’s definitely the best I’ve felt. I just felt like I could do what I wanted with the baseball,” Matz said in his postgame interview. “[Tomas] Nido back there was really good today, and we got into a real good rhythm. He called a great game, so it was a good day.”
Matz consistently sat in the range of 94-95 mph with his sinker, but also pulled his stops out on a few occasions with pitches that sat closer to 90-91 as he shrewdly exploited the inner part of the strike zone against right-handed hitters while floating his slider away from lefties. Even having seen him for the second time in as many weeks, the Giants just didn’t seem to stand much of a chance against him.
While his 5-11 record still does little to echo the strides he’s made with Mickey Callaway and Dave Eiland‘s guidance, Matz would certainly put himself in a good place for the 2019 season if he can repeat the performances we’ve been treated to over his last three starts. The stuff finally seems to have fallen in place with both his tempo and attitude, and the results have been stellar, to say the least.