NEW YORK -- An unsightly start has become something to behold for Steven Matz. The New York Mets left-hander stumbled out of the gate on the season but now has hit the kind of stride every pitcher hopes for.
On Wednesday, he threw 7 2/3 scoreless innings as the Mets beat the Atlanta Braves 8-0 before 31,783 fans in a cold drizzle at Citi Field. He allowed just three base runners, two on two-out hits in the third and eighth innings and a hit batter in the seventh. He didn’t issue a walk and struck out eight.
Matz' first start of the season was abominable, allowing seven runs and failing to get the final out of the second inning before being lifted. Since then it has been a different story. He’s made four starts for a 4-0 record with a 0.67 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 27 innings.
"Tough day to pitch, with the weather," manager Terry Collins said. "And he went out and did what he's been doing lately and that is throwing strikes and using all his stuff."
Matz added: "All my pitches, I felt comfortable like I could throw them in any count. That was definitely a good day."
Matz likes day games -- according to ESPN Stats & Info, he is 4-0 with a 1.07 ERA in five daytime starts -- but the 24-year-old is underselling how good he was in this one. He retired the first eight Atlanta hitters he faced before giving up a flare single in the third inning on a 1-and-2 fastball to pitcher Jhoulys Chacin. Then he retired the next 11 Braves before hitting Freddie Freeman with one out in the seventh. He got the next four before Erick Aybar's two-out single in the eighth ended his outing at 106 pitches.
He had the kind of rhythm, efficiency and success -- not to mention a light-hitting opposing lineup -- that could have put Collins in an unenviable position.
The premium on great young arms is at an all-time high. Already this season we have seen two young hurlers removed from games in which they were throwing a no-hitter because of their pitch counts. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts lifted Ross Stripling after 7.1 innings and 100 pitches on April 9 at San Francisco. Marlins manager Don Mattingly removed Adam Conley after 7.2 innings and 116 pitches four days ago in Milwaukee.
Collins has a Mets rotation with four of the best young arms in the game -- Matz, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey -- and that comes with a responsibility to keep them healthy and meet expectations to contend for the World Series again. Collins said before the game that he wanted Matz to stay around 110 pitches. Still, he knows he could be looking at similar situations to the ones Roberts and Mattingly encountered, and it sounds like he might go the same route.
"We’ve got to keep an eye on these guys. They’re coming back probably first time all season on four days' rest, therefore we got to make sure they’re OK," Collins said. "I get shutouts -- I know how important they are to guys -- but wins are the most important thing and to be able to go out there in four days.
"I know where Dave Roberts was coming from and where Don was coming from. You’re talking about once-in-a-lifetime, throwing a no-hitter. There’s a big picture involved here and the big picture right now with us, with the expectations that are with this club, is to make sure they stay healthy."
Matz conceded that when a pitcher is on the mound and doing well he won’t want to come out of a game, but that maybe he isn’t in the best position to judge. He said that there were signs of fatigue at 106 pitches.
"You don’t feel it on the mound [but] I could tell by where my pitches were going and the sharpness of them, that I was probably getting a little tired," Matz said. "Out there you don’t really feel it. It’s something they notice in the dugout. I definitely understand that."
So how exactly did Matz find this groove that has him pitching at the top of the game?
Rhythm and routine might be the reason.
There was no game scheduled for three of the next four days after Opening Day in Kansas City, so his first outing of the season came with nine days off following his final spring-training start. Since then, all the starts have been on four or five days of rest.
Matz also likes to work quickly, as he did Wednesday, and he said, "I’m definitely a rhythm pitcher -- I try to stay in that rhythm and work quick, so that definitely does help me."