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Matt Harvey’s Short, Strange Trip

After another injury, the Mets star’s brief career is starting to feel like a lifetime

Getty Images
Getty Images

When the Mets battled back from an 0–6 deficit to beat the Miami Marlins 8–6 on the Fourth of July, the game certainly had the feel of some of last season’s Amazin’ glories.

There was Yoenis Céspedes, knocking in the game’s winning runs with a flourish of that neon yellow sleeve. There was Jeurys Familia, getting out of a jam with the aid of that sinker. There was the tentatively giddy, is-this-happening escalation that is so very specific to baseball rallies, a feeling Mets fans finally refamiliarized themselves with last fall. (At one point last September, the team rolled off three straight come-from-behind wins in a crucial series against the Nationals.) And while the Independence Day game began with a dud of a start from once (and hopefully future) ace pitcher Matt Harvey, even that was reminiscent of last season: After all, one of those Mets wins over the Nationals came after Harvey had given up seven runs, all earned. It happens.

But as we learned on Thursday afternoon, Monday’s win had an alarming distinction. This time, when Harvey left the game in the fourth inning, having allowed six runs (five earned), he told manager Terry Collins: “My shoulder’s dead. My arm’s dead. There’s no energy there. I couldn’t feel the ball.” Not exactly what a manager wants to hear from one of his studs, but definitely not what he wanted to hear from this one. Ever since Harvey missed the 2014 season following Tommy John surgery, every off throw and rough start has been magnified. But his string of bad outings at the start of this season was particularly worrisome, and it was only recently that he had been showing signs of returning to form: In the six starts prior to Monday’s outing, he had a 2.27 ERA. The uptick wouldn’t last long.

The Mets placed Harvey on the DL on Wednesday, and a day later GM Sandy Alderson told the media that Harvey has “symptoms consistent with thoracic outlet syndrome,” a condition that affects the nerves and blood vessels in the upper body and often requires surgery. Alderson said that though surgery is “probably inevitable,” Harvey is still weighing his options between a season-ending operation or a more temporary “nerve-block injection” — a decision that leaves Mets fans with little more to turn to than gallows humor. At least it’s not his elbow again!

Matt Harvey is only 27, but sometimes it seems like he’s 35. His four seasons of MLB play have transpired in what feels like dog years. Already, he’s gone through the New York tabloid wringer; earned a moniker that has aged about as well as a middle-school AIM screen name; had Tommy John surgery in 2013 and a subsequent reassuring comeback in 2015; battled neck bloat and tunnel traffic and innings limits; and reckoned with agent of chaos Scott Boras. All this, and the guy won’t even hit free agency until after the 2018 season. (He may have superstar status, but Harvey’s $4.3 million paycheck this season is the first seven-figure salary of his career. In comparison, Stephen Strasburg, who like Harvey is a Boras client with Tommy John in his past, inked a $175 million extension over seven years early this season, while free agents David Price and Zack Greinke signed deals of $217 million and $206.5 million, respectively, this offseason.) It’s as if someone took a long and colorful baseball career, cut it into small pieces, and compressed and reassembled them in a totally random order.

Despite all this, Harvey has also been one of the most dominant and exciting pitchers in baseball, the kind who makes fans get out a calendar and a marker to circle dates with earnest glee. He crushed opponents from the moment he arrived in the majors, and even amid his 2016 struggles, his career ERA remains a sparkling 2.94. He’s seventh among NL starting pitchers in WAR since 2013 despite missing a full campaign during that span.

He’s also an athlete who’s never been good about hiding his humanity, for better or worse. When Harvey admitted, shortly before opening day, that he had been suffering from blood clots in his bladder, he took the disclosure a step further: “I guess the main issue is I hold my urine in for too long,” he told reporters, “instead of peeing regularly.” “YA GOTTA RELIEVE!” screamed the Daily News back page, while the New York Post came up with so many puns — like “FIELD OF STREAMS” — that it ran them all. Harvey was so upset by the jokes that he blew off the media for a few days. (Or, as the News put it, a “wee bit longer.”) For someone whose image is so public, Harvey is remarkably, and even endearingly, unpolished: he grumbles, he scoffs, he hates being pulled. You can argue about whether Collins made the right call in sending Harvey back in (and then keeping him in) for that fateful World Series ninth inning last October after Harvey’s dugout mini-tantrum, but there’s no disputing that the pitcher earned the opportunity, or that the vibe at Citi Field that night as he returned to the mound was one of genuine faith.

For Harvey, most of this season has gone about as well as that inning did. Given some of his 2016 starts, the news that he’s suffering from a painful, difficult ailment — one that effectively ended the careers of Chris Carpenter and Shaun Marcum and recently sidelined the NHL’s Steven Stamkos for months — was borderline reassuring, albeit in a macabre, self-involved, so-maybe-that-explains-those-outings kind of way. (Mets fans are acclimated to freakish injury woes, after all.)

But starting-pitching depth was supposed to be the Mets’ whole thing. Last season, they felt stacked enough to trade prospect Michael Fulmer, who is now the Detroit Tigers’ best pitcher. The rise of Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom, and the strong outings from Steven Matz, had already rendered Harvey’s long-term future with the franchise uncertain. But now his short-term presence is unknown too, and it comes as Matz and Syndergaard are both dealing with bone spurs in their elbows and Zack Wheeler’s own Tommy John rehab hits delays. It’s impossible to know whether Harvey’s recent diagnosis will be just one more odd chapter in his madcap career, or whether it could be the very last. But either way, everything feels like it was written completely out of order.