On a gray day at Nationals Park, Harvey became baseball’s latest Tommy John surgery survivor, the most recent pitcher who tore his ulnar collateral ligament, rehabbed for a year-plus and came out the other side. Harvey climbed a major league mound for the first time in 593 days, glowered at hitters and rifled lightning bolts through the April gloom, a performance that inspired a mixture of relief and awe. He was back. He was still dominant.
Harvey struck out nine Nationals over six scoreless innings in the New York Mets’ 6-3 victory, yielded four hits and walked only one. The power and command he showed as a rookie in 2013, when he started the All-Star Game, finished fourth in the Cy Young vote and posed naked on a magazine cover, returned in full. He struck out Bryce Harper three times, with high fastballs that registered 97, 97 and 96 miles per hour. He outgunned Stephen Strasburg, another flame-throwing Tommy John survivor, Washington’s version of Harvey before Harvey whooshed into their division.
“The long anticipation was setting in,” Harvey said. “I don’t know if I could draw it up any better.”
The recovery of Harvey, a thick-set 26-year-old, rests at the heart of the Mets’ future. He possesses a keen understanding of his primacy within the organization. Thursday morning in the Mets clubhouse, Harvey fiddled with an iPod connected to the locker room speakers. Out blared menacing riffs and screeching lyrics drenched with symbolism: Aerosmith’s “Back in the Saddle.”
Whether or not it deserves one, Gotham needs a hero. The Yankees’ anonymous lineup and aging roster created a rare window for the Mets to own the city for a summer. The Mets believe they can fill the void, a belief that rests on their ace. Inside New York’s clubhouse, Harvey’s return provides hope the Mets can contend.
The Mets discussed skipping Harvey the first time through their rotation, a small way to manage his innings total. But they decided they wanted him to face the reigning division champ, a chance Harvey was “geeked” for, Manager Terry Collins said. Behind Harvey, the Mets claimed a series victory over the Nationals, who beat them 15 times in 19 games last season.
“We’re talking about winning pennants here,” Collins said. “When you’ve got a Number 1 that you can run out there, you know you can score two or three runs a game and he’s going to win 20 games. We’ve got that animal. He’s going to change the dynamic of what our club is all about.”
Few would dismiss the Mets after watching Harvey. He fired a 96-mph fastball on his first pitch. His 91st and last pitch, an 88-mph changeup, dived from Clint Robinson’s waist to his ankles, and Robinson flailed for strike three. He pinpointed sliders, curves and change-ups, remarkable precision of secondary pitches so soon after rehab.
“A lot like the last time I saw him,” Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond said. “He didn’t look like he missed a beat.”
Harper, another star who will not shy from spotlight, entered the showdown with a deep respect for Harvey’s ability.
“Cy Young,” Harper said Monday afternoon, when asked what he expected from Harvey. “That guy is one of the best guys in the league.”
In their first encounter, Harvey showed Harper a first-pitch curveball, and Harper’s too-early hack resulted in strike one. Harvey rifled three fastballs, all above the letters, all 97 miles per hour, all carrying the same message: Here it is, hit it. Harper swung through two of them and headed back to the dugout.
“I don’t know if it’s really that cool,” Harper said Monday, laughing at the prospect of being present for Harvey’s return. “No, I’m excited to see him back. You love seeing guys like that.”
Harvey partially tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow during a start Aug. 24, 2013. He felt nothing — no pain, no burning sensation. Playing catch two days later, he experienced stiffness. He underwent X-rays, but only as precaution, he believed. The exam revealed the tear and shocked Harvey. He resisted the operation, because he wanted to rehab the injury and return quickly.
“The hardest part for me was to get him to accept the fact he’s going to have the surgery,” Harvey’s agent Scott Boras said.
Once doctors convinced him, Harvey underwent the operation Oct. 22, 2013. The competitiveness that makes him a “jerk” – Collins’s word – every fifth day surfaced. Harvey clashed with the Mets about the timetable of his return. He pushed. Team officials clenched the reins. He declared he could pitch in the majors in 2014. The Mets demanded patience.
“He wanted to prove one point, and that’s that he could come back sooner than anybody else had from Tommy John,” Collins said. “We didn’t allow that to happen.”
The timing allowed Harvey a full 17-month recovery – “a silver lining,” Alderson said. While not addressing Harvey specifically, Dr. Glenn Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute said pitchers who wait 18 months to return to major league games fare better immediately than those who return in roughly a year.
Eventually, Harvey may have another fight against his competitive nature, the attribute that both makes him and threatens to undo him. Harvey’s fastball averaged 95.8 miles per hour in 2013, the hardest of any starter in the majors that year. He wanted to put on a show with every pitch he threw.
“The starting pitchers who adapt long-term know not to always throw 100 percent full effort,” Fleisig said. “Maybe that was a learning process with the expensive lesson of a surgery.”
After his surgery, Harvey changed nothing. The Mets never discussed making tweaks to his delivery to attempting to throttle back his effort.
“Before his injury, he was one of those who was believed to have outstanding mechanics,” Alderson said. “Some guys are going to break, and some aren’t.”
Guys who throw with Harvey’s velocity, though, are statistically at greater risk. Once a pitcher completes an entire interval throwing program, medical experts consider him 100-percent back. The operation presents no additional danger. But if the same habits that led to the ligament tear remain, the pitcher faces a higher probability of surgery, for the same reasons he blew out in the first place.
“A guy who had a first Tommy John surgery and then he acts the same way before,” Fleisig said, “he will be at higher risk.”
For an example, Harvey could look to his opposite number Thursday. Strasburg underwent Tommy John surgery in September 2010, after a dazzling rookie season in which he threw his fastball at an average of 97.6 miles per hour. When he returned late in 2011, his fastball averaged 96 mph. His velocity continued to creep downward every season, settling last year at 94.7 miles per hour. The high velocity that contributed to his ligament tear dissipated even as he led the league strikeout in 2014. The chance of a second Tommy John surgery decreased with it.
The first fastball out of Harvey’s fingertips in a spring training game this March hummed at 99 miles per hour.
Only time can reveal whether Harvey tames his approach, or whether he needs to. Thursday, he proved again that, when healthy, he is a marvel. The layoff did not diminish Harvey’s stuff, and the anticipation did not stymie his focus. Over the season he missed, he learned to appreciate the moment. Every moment.
“Sometimes, you keep going through the motions, and things are going well, and you can get lost in that,” Harvey said. “For me, it was really just being thankful to be out there and compete.”
“Every player grows when the game is taken away from you,” Boras said. “You have an appreciation for what the game gives you. All of it becomes more exciting. All of it becomes more real. You got something back you lost.”
Baseball, too, lost something when Harvey sat out the 2014 season. It returned Thursday afternoon, a triumph for Harvey, a boon for his team and a victory for his sport. It is an accepted, hard truth that nobody can know how long the strand of tissue inside his elbow will remain in one piece. Next to that difficult uncertainty is a joyful certainty. The game is better with Matt Harvey around.