Mets’ Young Experiment Steven Matz Runs Into Dodgers’ Ace

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Mets’ Young Experiment Steven Matz Runs Into Dodgers’ Ace

Posted on: October 14th, 2015 by tommyj

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David Wright, left, and Lucas Duda, right, with Steven Matz, the Mets’ starter, after Matz gave up three runs in the third. Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times

Here’s a thought: When the Citi Field faithful serenaded the best pitcher of the last half-dozen years with a mocking “KERRRR-shaw,” “KERRRR-shaw,” it was like walking up to a lioness, peering into her face and repeatedly sticking out your tongue.

Your life expectancy is greatly diminished.

So Mets fans jeered and chanted with the insistent insanity that is our birthright as New Yorkers. And so Kershaw reared and threw, and reared and threw, and he went through the Mets’ lineup like a man on a mower. At the end of seven innings he had yielded three hits and a single run.

The Dodgers won, 3-1, and the series will return to Los Angeles for a final clash on Thursday.

For the Mets, the night had the feel of giddy hope colliding with prosaic reality. Terry Collins, the Mets’ manager, played a reasonable gamble and started Steven Matz in hopes of clinching this series. A Long Island lefty, Matz is a fine-looking rookie pitcher, with a rocking-chair motion that calls to mind another butter-smooth Mets lefty, Jon Matlack. Matz possesses multiple pitches and a fastball that hums along at 95 miles per hour.

“Right now, we’re saying, ‘Hey, if you can give us five or six innings and limit the damage, you’ve got to like where we’re at,’ ” Collins said before the game.

Here’s the problem, however: Matz had all of seven major league starts to his name. And those seven starts had been tucked between nagging injuries and a stint on the disabled list.

Matz, who grew up rooting for Mets blue and orange, gives the appearance of being unaffected by all the hoopla. That’s a bit of an illusion. The Mets’ public relations department labored Tuesday to keep writers away from his high school coach and his family, for fear that this start might go wrong.

“Yeah, I mean, I get butterflies before every start,” Matz acknowledged.

In fact, Matz did more or less what Collins asked, giving a gutsy, workmanlike effort for five innings and surrendering three runs. He froze several fine batters with fastballs on the corners, and dropped a couple of curves on their heads. He also gave up a hit to Kershaw.

“He had one bad inning,” Collins said afterward, “but other than that, it’s a very good game.”

Unfortunately, the Mets’ bats, with the exception of a belt-high, home run belt by Daniel Murphy, fell silent.

To raise the question of Matz’s peach fuzz status is not to imply criticism of him or of Collins. This Mets team is built around a pitching nursery, filled with sometimes obstreperous temperaments and strong arms. (Bartolo Colon takes the role of portly nanny). Three of the top four starting pitchers also have had elbow surgery, and much as it drives fans and a few puffed-chest writers crazy, it’s not good parenting practice to simply push them out on the mound for long, intense pitching jags.

“We’re going to have to beat Clayton Kershaw twice,” Collins said before the game. “We’re not overconfident by any stretch.”

That’s a good thing for Collins. Because for all of Kershaw’s recent struggles in the playoffs, he did a very reasonable imitation of a top ace on Tuesday night. He took an inning or two to find his touch, and then dealt pitches with ease. By the middle innings, he would get an out and pace back atop the mound like a man who knew exactly what he wanted to do, and to whom.

Curtis Granderson, who has had a fine series, came to the plate, and battled off a few terrific fastballs. Then Kershaw dropped a humped-back curve on him, traveling 72 m.p.h., and seemingly dropped into the strike zone from a blimp. Granderson pivoted and walked back to the dugout.

“You’re facing a pitcher who, when he’s right, they just don’t get a lot of hits,” Collins said later. “And he was right.”

The Mets had their moments, the most entertaining of which was the latest appearance of Colon, the 42-year-old starter. He had tied for the team lead in wins with 14 yet did not make the starting rotation in the playoffs.

He gives no appearance that this has bothered him, and in fact has now pitched in three of the four playoff games. The young Mets starters tend to have a floor on their fastballs of about 95 m.p.h., the equivalent of driving a late model BMW sports car.

Colon can touch the low 90s but more often tosses an 86-m.p.h. fastball, which is like driving a 1973 Buick with a broken muffler.

And yet, in relief, he confounded the Dodgers. Leaning back on his back leg, glove hand resting atop his copious tummy, he would peer in for a sign. And then, with no sense of hurry or worry, he would throw here and there, up in the strike zone and then done.

Pop-ups, strikeouts, ground balls. He went on for a while, and then departed placidly, as if to the postgame buffet.

Before the game, Collins conducted an entertaining news conference, talking of New York fans and how excitable and passionate they were. And he talked of his batting coach, Kevin Long, noting that the biggest thing he’s brought to the table is that “he’s smaller than me.”

He spoke, too, of his team, and its sense of urgency, and maybe more to the point his own. He did a lot of losing his first years in New York, captaining a ship with a threadbare budget and the best talent off-loaded like excess ballast.

Now he’s eager. “I’m old. Sense of urgency is right now. … I don’t have a lot of shots. So it’s pretty big for me.”

Tuesday night, the old man and the kid were not enough. Now the Mets return to Los Angeles for a final showdown between the Mets’ ace, Jacob deGrom, and the Dodgers’ other ace, Zack Greinke.

Urgency is all that’s left.

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