NEW YORK -- Stephen Strasburg, everybody's all-American, was taking it on the chin in the sixth, first from the people who pass for sluggers in the New York Mets' lineup and then from a beleaguered fan base thrilled that the joke was finally on someone else.
"Har-vee's be-tter," the crowd chanted. "Har-vee's be-tter."
Ike Davis and Lucas Duda had belted homers in the inning to make it 4-0, and suddenly all of Citi Field told the defending division champs, the popular pick to win it all this year, that the Mets' young stud was better than the Nationals' young stud. And as he stood on the mound, all alone with his thoughts, Strasburg had no right to argue the claim.
Matt Harvey was better on this night, and maybe Matt Harvey will be better over the next 10 to 12 years. Who knows? But under the Friday night lights, matched against one of the few pitchers anywhere said to have a brighter future than his, Harvey did all he could to elevate his loserville franchise.
He was an ace who dealt in the currency of hope, and the Mets need hope more than they needed investors after the Bernie Madoff mess. Harvey is the human bridge from the bottom of the National League East to future relevance and contention. By late summer, unless the Mets piece together a miracle run out of their distant past, Harvey might be the only reason for anyone to show up at all.
"There's going to be a lot of years you guys are going to talk about this guy," manager Terry Collins told reporters after the Mets won 7-1. "He's going to be really something."
He was really something against Strasburg and Bryce Harper and the rest with Doc Gooden sitting behind the plate. In a different life, Gooden lit up Friday nights at Shea for his old manager, Davey Johnson, who believes his Nationals can win him a ring as pretty as the ring he won in '86.
Johnson was talking about the teenage Gooden before the game, about his ability to read hitters at such an early age, to work them in and out with his fastball. "And if they got a piece of that," Johnson said, "he'd throw them a curveball, and then it was all over."
Harvey, who made his big league debut last year at 23, isn't another Doc Gooden, who debuted at 19 and finished a 24-4 season before his 21st birthday. There are promising young pitchers, and then there is Doc, a once-in-a-generation star before his inner demons took him down.
Only Harvey did nothing against the Nationals to refute the notion he could build a better career than the one built by Gooden, a 300-win talent who didn't even make it to 200. Harvey threw 13 fastballs in the first inning, topping out at 99 mph and bottoming out at 96. He didn't allow a position player a hit through five innings (Strasburg managed a double). And when Daniel Murphy's defense betrayed him in the seventh, loading the bases with no outs and the lead cut to 4-1, Harvey made a frank assessment of his tiring arm and the pressing circumstances.
"At any point, it felt it could've unraveled," he said.
"Mark of a true ace," Collins said.
So was the crowd's response to him. It was an emotional night all around, as fans chanted "U-S-A" after word came of the capture of the second Boston Marathon bombing suspect, a breakthrough that made the singing of "Sweet Caroline" that much sweeter.
But Harvey was the one who first put the fans in a celebratory mood, carrying a 2-0 lead into the second before he dusted Ian Desmond and Chad Tracy with fastballs that nearly sailed over their heads.
"He pitches up there with a purpose," Tracy said. "He's trying to make it look good to us, but his ball takes off at the end. Right when you think you're on it, it's gone."
Gone with the consistent night fog that swept through Citi Field.
"He's good," Desmond said. "You don't have too many career at-bats off him. He's got electric stuff. He's an ace."
An ace who struck out seven and allowed four hits and the one run over seven innings. An ace who finished with a 4-0 record and a 0.93 ERA. An ace who became the first pitcher since Tim Hudson in 2007 to open a season with four consecutive starts of at least seven innings pitched and no more than one run allowed.
An ace who said he was "fired up" for this duel with Strasburg after reading up on how a young Gooden used to make Friday night an event night at Shea.
"I grew up watching the guy, so that's something special," Harvey said of Gooden's appearance in the stands. "It's something that when I was younger, I wanted to be that guy. I wanted to be guys of his caliber. For him to stay stuff about me and to come to one of my starts, it's kind of mindboggling."
So was the idea of Harvey starting for the National League at the All-Star Game at Citi Field, at least until his first four starts culminated in a knockout in this heavyweight championship fight.
The Mets' website had sent out emails in the afternoon to prospective ticket buyers, listing the heights and weights of Harvey (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) and Strasburg (6-4, 200), and calling it their tale of the tape. If this was indeed a prizefight, Strasburg would have been granted the privilege of entering the ring last.
He was the first overall pick of the 2009 draft; Harvey went seventh in 2010. Strasburg was the prospect who landed the $7.5 million signing bonus; Harvey settled for $2.525 million. Strasburg was the guy who broke into the bigs at 21, the guy too valuable to even pitch in last year's playoffs and the guy who scored a $3.9 million wage for this season; Harvey is making a lousy five hundred grand.
But in the sixth round, or inning, Strasburg was also the guy who had to listen to the fans chant about his opponent's upper hand.
"It's nice to hear," Harvey said, "but I've got a long way to go to do something like that. I appreciate the fans and the support, but we're here to win. We're the New York Mets. It's not just one guy out there."
It only seemed that way in Harvey's previous start, in Minnesota, where he took a no-hitter into the seventh, and again Friday night in his home, sweet home, after the Mets escaped the frozen tundras of Minneapolis and Denver.
"I'm impressed," Davey Johnson said afterward.
"He's got good stuff," the vanquished Strasburg conceded.
"He wants to be the best that there is in the game," Collins said.
If nothing else, that desire could go a long way in another lost Mets season. Their fans need hope, and Matt Harvey will give them that every time out.