It was a pitching battle for the ages … well on paper, at least.
Thursday’s game at Citi Field featured two aces but only one stuck to the script. Stephen Strasburg, fresh off a monumental contract extension, displayed his usual brand of dominance, limiting the Mets to one run on six hits over six marvelous innings. He won for the seventh time this season while extending his unbeaten streak to 13 starts.
While Strasburg cruised to another victory, Harvey was living his worst nightmare. The Nationals didn’t just beat Harvey Thursday—they crushed his soul. In the shortest and most disastrous start of his career, Harvey allowed a career-high nine runs (six earned), eight hits and two walks in only 2 2/3 innings. Harvey couldn’t escape the third inning as the Nats buried him for six hits and seven runs. Even Bryce Harper, who entered Thursday’s game hitless in 20 at-bats against Harvey, trickled a single to right field off him.
New York’s pitiful defense didn’t do Harvey any favors. Asdrubal Cabrera botched an easy grounder while Michael Conforto misjudged a catchable ball in right field. Not to be outdone, Yoenis Cespedes let a sinking line drive fall under his mitt, allowing Ben Revere to motor all the way to third for a two-run triple.
Meltdown, bloodbath, implosion, whatever you want to call it, this was Harvey at his absolute worst. The painful experience would have been bad enough without Daniel Murphy rubbing salt in the wound. Back at his old stomping ground, the pesky second baseman taunted his ex-teammate by drilling a missile to center field for his sixth home run of the season. In his next at-bat, Harvey didn’t even bother pitching to him. After a Bryce Harper steal left first base open, Harvey put Murphy on with an intentional walk.
Usually Harper’s the one getting walked but with Murphy leading the majors in batting average (.397), OPS (1.065) and hits (60), who could blame him? Harper hasn’t done much hitting this month (.200 in 45 at-bats) but he’s quietly become a stolen base threat with seven thefts on 10 attempts this season. That’s already more steals than he had last year or the year before.
Harvey had every reason to fail Thursday night. Even in a slump, Harper is still terrifying while the revenge-minded Murphy was clearly out for blood. Never mind that Strasburg has been almost unbeatable over his last 22 starts (15-2, 2.20 ERA). That’s enough to make anyone want to call in sick.
The trouble is, Thursday wasn’t an isolated incident. Harvey’s been getting throttled all year. He’s tied for the league lead in losses and his ERA is hovering around six. At 27, Harvey should be entering his prime. Instead, he’s going through the worst stretch of his career.
We all remember the controversy that surrounded Harvey last fall when Scott Boras and James Andrews tried to pressure the Mets into shutting him down. In retrospect, maybe they were right. Instead of stopping at 180 innings, the number suggested by both Boras and Andrews, Harvey pitched deep into the postseason, throwing 216 innings in his first year back from Tommy John surgery. His fastball velocity is down almost two miles per hour from last season (94.1 versus 95.9). That’s a clear sign of fatigue.
Harvey wouldn’t be the first guy to chase postseason glory and pay the price later. Curt Schilling might be the best example of it. After ripping his ankle to shreds in the 2004 postseason, Schilling logged just 93 1/3 innings the following season with a miserable 5.69 ERA. He returned to form in 2007 (3.00 ERA in 24 postseason innings) but injuries forced him to call it quits a year later.
It’s easy to blame Harvey’s struggles on velocity, but mechanics are just as important. My biggest takeaway from Thursday night was the location of Harvey’s pitches. He threw 40 of his 61 pitches for strikes. That’s too many. When the hit parade rolled through in the third inning, it was obvious that Harvey was missing his spots. Instead of painting the corners or throwing inside to back hitters off the plate, Harvey made it easy for them by grooving fastballs down the pipe.
Harvey’s next start is scheduled for Tuesday against you guessed it, the Nationals. Washington will be rolling out Stephen Strasburg. That’s probably not the ideal setting for a pitcher low on confidence. Harvey looked as dejected as we’ve ever seen him after Thursday’s start.
“My body feels fine,” said Harvey. “It’s not being able to execute pitches, not doing my job.”
Even Harper, who has spent most of his career getting smoked by Harvey, felt an unusual amount of sympathy. “I feel bad for him. He comes off the mound and gets booed, and he’s one of the best in baseball,” said Harper. “You never want to see a guy do that.”
After the game, manager Terry Collins wouldn’t commit to Harvey making his next start. “We're not going to commit to anything at this time," he said. "We will take a hard look at what the next move is going to be."
Does that mean skipping a single turn or inventing an injury to make him go away for a while? The Mets couldn’t send their Opening Day starter to the minors, could they?
Maybe Harvey just needs to work through this. David Price got off to an equally horrible start before the Red Sox found a flaw in his technique about two weeks ago. He’s won his last two starts in impressive fashion with improved mechanics. Strasburg’s revival should also give Harvey hope. His ERA sat at 6.55 after 10 starts last season. By the end of the year, it was all the way down to 3.46.
Strasburg’s turnaround had more to do with his philosophy than his mechanics. Mets broadcaster Ron Darling touched on this during Thursday night’s broadcast. Early in his career, Strasburg was enamored with his fastball. The velocity’s still there when he needs it—he hit 98 mph at one point Thursday night—but now he mostly sits in the 94-95 mph range while leaning more on his off-speed stuff. Chris Sale has used a similar approach in 2016 and is having the best year of his career.
That tendency to overthrow and always go for the strikeout is a common flaw of young pitchers. Harvey is as guilty of that as anyone. Maybe he could learn a thing or two from Strasburg and Sale.
Although he strongly denied it, I still think Harvey could be dealing with an injury. Remember when we crucified Pablo Sandoval early in the year when he was struggling? When the Red Sox placed him on the disabled list, it looked like another phantom injury. It turned out that his shoulder injury was very real and required season-ending surgery. I hope that’s not the case here but the Mets may want to give Harvey an MRI just to be safe.
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Quick Hits: The Giants’ bullpen didn’t exactly burn the midnight oil this week. In three games against the Padres, the Giants’ pen pitched a grand total of one inning. At least they’ll be well-rested for this weekend’s showdown with the Cubs … It doesn’t look like the NL is any closer to getting a DH but the Giants aren’t complaining. Jake Peavy, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner all went deep at Thursday’s batting practice. Bumgarner actually hit three straight homers at one point … Rajai Davis took home Ohio Cup MVP honors this year. In Cleveland’s four-game sweep of Cincinnati, Davis hit .563 with two homers and nine RBI. He raised his average from .210 to .259 over that span … Thursday Josh Tomlin became the first Indians pitcher to record two hits in a game since June 28, 2011 (that was also Tomlin). He’s the first Indians starter to begin the year 6-0 since Cliff Lee did it in 2008 en route to winning the AL Cy Young … Thursday was Carlos Santana’s sixth career multi-homer game. The last time he homered twice in a game was against Kansas City on July 27, 2014 … Tim Adleman exited Thursday’s start with a strained oblique. He’ll have an MRI on Friday. Don’t be surprised if he lands on the disabled list … Will this be the year George Springer finally wins a Gold Glove? Let’s ask Jose Abreu … Jose Altuve extended his hitting streak to 11 games on Thursday. He leads the majors in runs (37), doubles (17), steals (15) and wins above replacement (3.3). I’m pretty sure he’d be the shortest MVP in league history … Evan Gattis started behind the plate Thursday for the first time since September 28, 2014. He also had a nice night offensively with two hits including a solo home run off Chris Sale … Speaking of Sale, he went the distance Thursday for his third complete game of the season. The left-hander has won all nine of his starts this year … Nick Hundley caught a bullpen session on Thursday. It was his first since suffering a strained oblique earlier this month … Trevor Story’s home run Thursday was his first since May 5. He’s only gone deep twice this month but he’s hitting .319, which is well above his .261 clip from April … Randal Grichuk exited Thursday’s game with lower back tightness. Jeremy Hazelbaker replaced him in center field at the start of the fourth inning … Jhonny Peralta will begin a rehab assignment with Low-A Peoria on Friday. He’s working his way back from thumb surgery … Dodgers manager Dave Roberts expects Adrian Gonzalez to return on Saturday. He’s missed the last three games with back stiffness … The Braves can’t seem to do anything right lately. Even eating lunch has become a challenge. Erick Aybar was rushed to the hospital Thursday after getting a chicken bone lodged in this throat. Thankfully, he’s going to be okay … Jose Bautista hit leadoff Thursday for the first time since 2010. He went 1-for-4 with a base hit … Brian Dozier also returned to the leadoff spot on Thursday. The Twins dropped him to sixth in the order last week but Joe Mauer proved to be an even worse leadoff hitter than Dozier so the Twins returned to their old lineup … Kyle Gibson threw 45 pitches in a simulated game Thursday and is set to begin a rehab assignment with High-A Fort Myers on Sunday. He’s been out with a shoulder sprain … Yangervis Solarte (hamstring) began a rehab assignment with Triple-A El Paso on Thursday. He went 2-for-4 with a triple and two RBI … Alejandro De Aza has worked out at first base the last two days. Outfield is the only position he’s ever played in the major leagues … CC Sabathia has gotten cynical in his old age. When asked if he still enjoyed pitching in his home city of Oakland, Sabathia responded, “No, it just costs me money now.” He’s reserving 75-125 tickets for friends and family on Friday night … Ivan Nova was only at 62 pitches after six innings Thursday when the Yankees went to their bullpen, using Dellin Betances in the seventh, Andrew Miller in the eighth and Aroldis Chapman in the ninth. They did the same thing Wednesday with Nathan Eovaldi leaving after just 85 pitches.