ATLANTA – There is a story about Matt Harvey, one whispered around the New York Mets' clubhouse. It sounds fictitious. People who know Harvey swear it isn't. They saw it themselves. He stared down a giant bully, threatened to whip his ass and watched Goliath slink away.
Harvey would prefer not to talk about it, because he knows better than to gloat. "I'm not gonna discuss it," he said Tuesday, one of the biggest days of his career, an even bigger one for the franchise he now and for the distant future will embody. Now, in fact, is the perfect time, for the tale runs so wonderfully parallel to the Mets' recent history.
During his rookie season last year, Harvey was tired and decided to take a nap in a side room of the Mets' clubhouse. One of baseball's stupid decrees goes something like: Rookies pretty much can't do anything. That includes nap. The self-appointed enforcer of this rule was Jon Rauch, the 6-foot-11 relief pitcher with head-to-toe tattoos and the sort of perma-snarl reserved for nuns and rabid dogs.
Rauch, according to people who saw the incident, barged into the room with bucket of ice water, which he proceeded to dump on Harvey. It waterlogged Harvey's phone, which was resting on his chest as an alarm, and incited an even more electrical reaction inside Harvey.
He bounded up and challenged Rauch to a fight. Right there. Right then. He gave up 7 inches, about 75 pounds and a gallon or so of bad ink. It didn't matter that he was a rookie. Harvey would not be a joke. He would not be a punch line in Rauch's re-telling. He would not let some mediocre clown play him.
Rauch backed away.
From that day forth, everyone who witnessed the incident or heard about it understood a new Mets commandment: Thou shalt not trifle with Matt Harvey. And they gleaned something that they may not have understood at the time but certainly will going forward: If he can stand up against the big, bad leviathan and turn into the alpha dog just like that, so can the team that for the last five years has been nothing but joke after punch line after clown bait.
For the first time in a long time Tuesday, it was good to be the New York Mets. The franchise had waited almost two years for this. In that time, they lost 162 games, felt the continued consequences of cavorting with Bernie Madoff, saw their payroll dip below $100 million, weathered questions about the future of manager Terry Collins, choked on Jordany Valdespin's drama-queen preening, thought it a good idea to enlist a cougar dating site to pump David Wright's All-Star candidacy and led an existence that could be typified in three words that encapsulate it all: That's so Mets. It was not a compliment.
All of this was palatable because of Tuesday – because Harvey was here, and he was better than anybody could've imagined, and because Zack Wheeler was about to make his major league debut, and he had grown into something mighty exciting, too. These were just two players, two pitchers no less, whose arms at any time could revolt under the weight of which they're capable. Fastballs that tickle triple digits do not often correlate with arms that hold up under the wear and tear of producing such velocity.
Still, that was for some other day. This was now. This was Super Tuesday, a doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves. Starting Game 1 was Harvey, the 24-year-old star dating a supermodel, living in Manhattan rather than the typical Long Island or Queens abodes of most Mets, projecting the proper balance of intelligence, polish, wit, marketability and the universal glue: professional excellence. Game 2 marked the unveiling of Wheeler, another hard thrower but not really the same in any other way. He's 23 and from nearby Smyrna and hasn't had the accent beaten out of him yet. He considered sleeping at home until he realized it would probably be best to stay at the team hotel. He was always the more highly touted prospect during their shared time in the minor leagues, though now he was arriving to a flipped script, Harvey so good he may start the All-Star Game at Citi Field in a month.
There was one snag in all this: It was supposed to rain all day. Ninety percent chance, the forecast said. Pissing all over the Mets. So typical.
Only the dark clouds missed Turner Field. The sun sparkled all day. Super Tuesday was on. And as great as it may have been in the minds of those who waited for it and romanticized it, the real thing was even better.
Around 11 a.m., the Mets' bus pulled up to the ballpark. Less than 10 hours earlier, deep into the night after a rain delay, Freddie Freeman pummeled a home run, ending the game while breaking up Dillon Gee's shutout. It was the first shutout-busting walk-off homer in more than 19 years. Matching decades-old marks is a Mets specialty.
When Harvey pitches, that sentiment morphs into the good sort of impossible. The Mets waited 8,019 games before their first no-hitter, a Johan Santana special last season. Throughout the afternoon, it seemed as though they'd need merely a 175-game breather before their second.
Watching Harvey is an exercise in frenzied breathing. His fastball causes gasps and his slider wheezes deeper still. They are his sine qua non. The curve ball and changeup are accessories to deepen the insult. And when the fastball is on like it was Tuesday – the 100.1-mph scorcher he threw to Jason Heyward in the first inning was the single fastest pitch by a starter this season – and the slider generates 10 swings and misses out of just 27 pitches, a consensus is reached among the scouts behind home plate: This is the best stuff they've seen all season, and it's not really close.
In trying to explain where he found that extra mile per hour or two, Harvey suggested maybe it was the weather, sticky and warm, that loosened his arm. For those who know Harvey, it may have been something else – something that he has drawn on during this most rapid of ascents: the reminder that he wasn't supposed to be who he is.
That was Wheeler. Hell, even this spring, when Wheeler's fastball sat at 98 mph and he drew tabloid admiration and anonymous scouts canonized him, Harvey wasn't exactly ignored. He was simply relegated. And while his handlers do their best to ensure such motivations don't poison Harvey's wellspring of mental fortitude, it was right there Tuesday, five lockers down from him, wearing the No. 45 jersey with WHEELER on the back.
"That might be another motivational thing for him," Collins said. "This guy uses a lot of things outside his own mind to motivate him. He loves to pitch big games. He loves to pitch against teams' aces. He loves to face huge challenges. And now with Zack here, and all the publicity – let's face it: [Harvey] is the guy. And with all the attention to Zack, he might've said, 'I'm still the guy here.' "
The Braves couldn't touch Harvey. They went hitless over three, then four, then five, then six. The strikeouts piled up, hitting double digits. The best the Braves could muster was a Jason Heyward nubber down the first-base line that cue-balled away from Harvey and registered as an infield single. It angered him, and back he came against Freeman, the Braves' best hitter, with a changeup, then a fastball, then two more changeups, then a slider. And with the count full, he twirled in a curve ball, like he was marking his territory, that this mound was going to be his for a long, long time, and using his fourth-best pitch on a 3-2 count was kosher.
Freeman turned back to John Buck, the Mets' catcher.
"Are you serious?" he asked.
"He can throw whatever he wants to now, bro," Buck replied.
"That son of a bitch," Freeman said.
That son of a bitch followed with a 97-mph fastball that Freeman spoiled and a 96-mph fastball through which he swung. When the inning ended, Harvey stomped back into the dugout, mad that for the third time this season he flirted with a no-hitter only for it to turn its back on him.
Right now, Harvey reminds Buck of another pitcher he caught: Zack Greinke circa 2009. Greinke won the Cy Young with a 2.16 ERA that year. Following three runs in the eighth inning allowed by the Mets' bullpen and charged to Harvey, his ERA sits at 2.16.
The Mets' clubhouse buzzed about just how good Harvey looked. He struck out 13, generated 22 whiffs and perfumed the clubhouse with a sense of what could be. "Expectations are soaring with this guy," Collins said, "and he's [saying], 'Bring it on. The more the better.' "
The best part was that this was merely the entrée. Sitting at his locker, fiddling with his cell phone in one hand and spitting tobacco refuse in a cup held by the other, was the pitcher for Game 2, who had quite the act to follow from Game 1.
"Harvey has been great to watch," said Mets closer Bobby Parnell. "And I'm excited to see what Wheeler can do in the big leagues. It gets you excited for the future of this game."
Zack Wheeler's delivery is not the furious rush of kinesis that typifies Harvey's. Wheeler buffed out all the rough edges to create this harmonious aesthetic that happens to propel a baseball with similar fury and imperils hitters just the same. There are, what, five, maybe 10 starting pitchers with such abilities. And two of them, now, are at the longtime junction of dysfunction, the New York Mets.
For the first few innings, Wheeler actually in a Mets uniform on a major league mound registered as odd and even a little surreal. Ever since general manager Sandy Alderson stole him from the San Francisco Giants in a 2011 trade-deadline deal for Carlos Beltran, Wheeler has been held up as this paragon of what the Mets must become. It is a habit endemic to New Yorkers, something they saw a generation ago with Paul Wilson and Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen, the so-called Generation K, whose spectacular flameout holds a special place in Mets lore.
Though the risk is especially palpable with any pitching prospect, Wheeler falling prey frightens every Mets die-hard with open wounds that refuse to heal. It's not just the typical potential to flail and fail. It's that Wheeler enters a career in which he'll be forever compared to one of the best pitchers alive – one whom, even as recently as a year ago, he was supposedly better than.
In the first inning, Wheeler couldn't find the strike zone. Teammates visited the mound. David Wright told him he looked nervous. Wheeler laughed. He worked out of a jam, then started cruising along until the sixth inning crept up and he found himself with runners on first and second, one out, the crowd tomahawk chopping, just like he had when he was a kid at Braves games.
He threw a curve ball to the hitter, Dan Uggla, who turned backward to avoid getting hit. The ball ended up bending over the plate for a strike. He followed with a ball before unleashing his 100th pitch, a 90-mph slider that sent Uggla flailing through it.
Wheeler closed out the inning, watched the Mets score a pair in the top half and ended his night with a 0.00 ERA, his first major league win and a spot in the Mets' rotation for the remainder of the season. He'll bring his massive truck to New York and keep playing basketball and kick it at the mall, because that's what he does. Try as they may, the tabloids are not likely to find Wheeler doing much of anything interesting, aside from pitching.
If that works for him, like going to Rangers games and being the personification of a New York athlete does for Harvey, that is fine. Because what the Mets ultimately care about is how they perform when they are 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate. Thirteen innings of 98-mph fastballs and unfair breaking balls and kamikaze changeups Tuesday answered that and left them frothing for more.
For so long now, the Mets have talked about the future in reverential terms, like it's not only something to be embraced but anticipated. It's remarkably dangerous, a team in New York so coldly dismissing the present while embracing a complete unknown with substantial risk. Collins, bless his salty old heart, cannot help his effusiveness when talking about Harvey. "I know he's going to pitch a good game," Collins said. "That's almost like a given anymore."
In the aftermath of Wheeler's debut, Collins talked about how impressed he was, especially with how Wheeler escaped the sixth inning by inducing a pop up to end it.
"That's what the stars do," Collins said, and this is how expectations bubble: When a manager nonchalantly drops the word star after the first start of a player's career.
Wheeler, like Harvey, tried to isolate his start from the other's, doing his best to ensure they aren't portrayed as Siamese twins. Because they're not, and they won't be, and it's best to understand that right now before their anointing as those who will save the Mets.
If it's not here yet, it's coming. Both referenced "the future" because, yeah, it's exciting. Two rotation anchors like that, both with the Mets for another half-decade, and on their first day together they marched into games against the first-place Braves and combined for 20 strikeouts and a pair of victories? Forget Wheeler's five walks. Don't worry that Harvey bent the inning after he gave up his no-hitter. The future is no longer intangible; it is the present getting to play itself out.
Finally the Mets have a reason to walk around with some swagger, to remind the baseball establishment there is more than one team in New York worth watching. The Mets have been bullied and laughed at and clowned enough. On June 18, 2013, they started fighting back.
It was just one day. And it was so much more.
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