NEW YORK -- Long before David Wright went down with a hamstring pull that ruined the night, if not the season, Matt Harvey brought something to the mound in his homecoming that cannot be taught or developed by some sun-weathered lifer on a back field in Port St. Lucie.
Presence. Rock star presence. You either have it, or you don't.
The ace of the New York Mets sure has it, and that's why a Tuesday evening in April against the petrified remains of the once mighty Philadelphia Phillies felt like a Saturday night in the fall against the heavyweight champions of the world. The Citi Field crowd stood and chanted Harvey's name before he even threw his first pitch -- a 97-mph fastball that Odubel Herrera took for a strike -- and the tone was set for a wildly entertaining give-and-take between the fans and the surgically repaired pitcher charged with easing their pain.
Harvey would make some hitters look small and foolish, fire some 99-mph fastballs with bad intentions and even drill the one opponent who owned him, Chase Utley, inspiring the plate umpire to warn both dugouts and, of greater consequence, inspiring the fans to again chant, "Har-vee, Har-vee."
These tense and electric scenes were stolen from Mets-Phillies circa 2007 and 2008, with one exception:
Those Mets wouldn't have gagged away back-to-back playoff appearances had Harvey been a member of their team.
When it was all over Tuesday, the Mets owned a bizarre and costly 6-5 victory. And their starter owned a 2-0 record and a busy, above-average report card that read like this: six innings, five hits, three runs, eight strikeouts, no walks, two homers and two hit batters. The game was a tale of two Citi Fields, with the crowd anticipating over the first two innings a 15- or 16-strikeout night (Harvey had whiffed five of seven hitters and thrown 20 strikes in 27 pitches), and the crowd over the next four merely trying to will a gassed Harvey home.
The victory shouldn't cloak the truth about where Harvey is and just how heavy his burden appeared to be even before the team captain, Wright, turned up lame on a steal of second in the eighth. "That's a major problem," Mets manager Terry Collins said of the injury before the third baseman hobbled to his locker with his right leg heavily wrapped and explained to reporters that he won't try to stubbornly play through the pain like he did in 2013, which turned out to be a silly mistake.
The Mets also lost Michael Cuddyer for the night to a bruised hand, thanks to a wayward David Buchanan pitch. And they ended up replacing Wright at third with Anthony Recker, who said he has never played the position, Little League days included. To add to the surreal nature of the night, Collins called for a third-inning replay review of the umpire's call that a Harvey fastball hit Freddy Galvis, only to find the review wasn't allowable (Harvey and catcher Travis d'Arnaud already were in their positions for the next pitch) and to learn the four-minute delay impacted his starter (Harvey surrendered an RBI single to Utley on the next pitch).
Collins was later ejected for arguing a catcher's interference call (what else?). "That might be the weirdest game I've been a part of, maybe ever," Harvey would say.
The pitcher swore unconvincingly that the adrenaline rush of the early innings didn't impact him later on, and that the noisy innings were the mere by-products of pitches creeping over the heart of the plate. But he couldn't deny that the magnitude of the moment, his first home start in forever, had him feeling like Jordan Spieth on Sunday morning at the Masters, just dying to fast-forward his way to his tee time.
"I kept looking at the clock before the game," Harvey admitted, "and I think it was maybe 4 [p.m.]. And I felt like two hours had gone by, and it was probably about five minutes."
This is just the start of the clock and scoreboard watching. Coming off Tommy John surgery and some 19 months removed from his most recent big league start, Harvey's domination of the Nationals last week was a testament to his talent and desire to elevate a franchise in dire need of elevating. But carrying the Mets over the long term isn't going to be easy, not even close, especially since the job description calls for Harvey to sit four games out of every five.
He might project the vibe of the champion New York athlete from 45 years ago -- Tom Seaver arm, Joe Namath swagger, Clyde Frazier cool -- and he might be appealing enough to the locals to put nearly 40,000 fans in the house for an event that otherwise would have drawn 25,000 or so. It's just that the guy is coming off major surgery, and he's assuming the role of designated savior for a team that has failed to reach 80 victories in six straight seasons.
People too easily forget that the same Matt Harvey who started the 2013 All-Star Game in his own building made 26 starts that year, and won a grand total of nine of them. Nine. Just a little numerical reminder of how difficult it is to be a franchise player for a franchise with hitters who usually don't hit and owners who usually don't spend. Not that Harvey is unworthy of the hype. Mets executive J.P. Ricciardi, former GM in Toronto and Moneyball man in Oakland, said he told Harvey that his talent and commitment to excellence reminded him of the best qualities of his old Blue Jays ace, Roy "Doc" Halladay.
"And I wouldn't throw that around lightly," Ricciardi said, "because I have so much respect for Halladay and how he worked and went about his business.
"Matt has a chance to be special. He's actually more advanced than Halladay is, because Halladay really failed early and had to go back. Matt hasn't failed. For him to hit the ground running and not go backward yet, he's got that over Doc. The thing I like about Matt is, if he's good, he wants to be great. And if he's great, he wants to be even better than great."
Yes, Harvey wants to be better than Halladay, and all other multiple Cy Young Award winners. He wants people to know it, too.
"Halladay did his job and went home," Ricciardi said. "He was so quiet and introverted, and he was married. For Matt, he's out there. I don't think he's running up and down Broadway, but he's a young guy who lives in New York City. He's a Northeast kid from Connecticut, and most Northeast kids who grow up around big cities understand what it's like to play in those cities.
"I think the fact that Matt embraces it, that's why the people embrace him. The fans want to be able to say, 'Hey, he's one of us.' I think David has done that here, and obviously Derek Jeter did it. If Matt stays healthy, there's no reason why he won't have that same aura about him as a New York athlete."
Behind that blossoming aura is a work ethic that Ricciardi and Collins said endears him to teammates with lesser physical gifts. But the fans? They don't need to see Harvey pumping iron on his off days. They've already decided that they adore the local boy, and that they're sick and tired of the Knicks being lousy, and the Jets being lousy, and the Giants and Yankees sort of being lousy. When the Rangers are done with their Stanley Cup run, the loserville Mets might finally take this town by the throat.
"It's not too often that the other teams in a town as competitive as New York are all down," Ricciardi said, "so when you get that opportunity, you have to take advantage of it. But every great franchise has someone you can hang your hat on." That someone isn't David Wright, now likely out for weeks with a pulled hamstring. Once again, even on winning nights, the Mets are a heavy burden to bear.
Matt Harvey is the one who has to carry them from here to October, and he's going to need more than Seaver's arm and Namath's swagger and Frazier's cool to do it. He's also going to need some luck -- and the Mets never lead the league in that, either.