NEW YORK -- Mets ace Matt Harvey had said all along that his surgically repaired pitching elbow felt great, and now he was proving it. Cue the jokes about how good Harvey is on 500-some days' rest, and all the other happy banter.
Harvey was so eager to get this party started he ran out to the mound before his Mets teammates were even out of the dugout on Friday in Port St. Lucie, Florida, and he admitted later that he was shaking a little. The Tommy John surgery that Harvey had 16 months ago and the fact that he hadn't pitched in a game since Aug. 24, 2013, didn't matter.
Once Harvey was out there, the six Detroit Tigers batters he faced in the Mets' spring training home opener at Tradition Field barely even got any wood on the ball. Harvey couldn't have looked better for Day 1 of his comeback -- or a Sunday afternoon in August, for that matter.
Watching Harvey pitch was like time travel.
He was so good during the two innings and mere 25 pitches he threw, he turned back the clock to his electric rookie season and sent time spinning forward to later this summer. Watching him on TV, it was easy to forget the two feet of snow and single-digit temperatures here in New York and entirely possible to imagine him being this electric again two, three and four months from now to keep the big-dreaming Mets right in the middle of a playoff chase.
"He was locked in," said Mets catcher Travis d'Arnaud.
Harvey struck out three of the six Tigers he faced and he cracked the bats of two others. He was dominant. He comfortably threw his fastball 96 to 99 mph. His slider dived into the dirt, same as ever. Even his curveball, a reclamation project, was a knee-buckling filthy pitch. Nick Castellanos was the only Tigers hitter who saved even a little face against him. Castellanos should have received some kind of trophy for at least getting the ball out of the infield -- though even that was just a lazy fly ball he lifted to right.
Harvey was so good when he blew away Tigers No. 4 hitter Jordan Lennerton on three straight pitches, it provoked an on-air laugh from former Mets pitcher Ron Darling, who was calling the game for SNY. Darling said poor Lennerton, who spent last year in Triple-A, was likely to get some good-natured kidding when he got back to the Detroit bench about forgetting to take the weighted doughnut off his bat before leaving the on-deck circle.
"Yeah ... um, felt good," Harvey said, allowing himself a small smile after SNY set him up with headphones and a microphone in the far corner of the dugout for an in-game interview.
"I was feeling it," Harvey added when Darling asked him about the backdoor curveball he used to freeze Bryan Holaday and strike him out looking.
"Had to drop that in there," Harvey laughed.
It almost, almost seems unfair that the curveball is Harvey's weakest pitch next to his fastball, slider and changeup. He's been working it back into his arsenal after abandoning it for the most part since college. When asked during the Mets' pregame show how far the curve is from being a useful in-game pitch, Mets backup catcher Anthony Recker said, "It's there."
It was just one day. A whiff of things to come.
But if Harvey is going to be this good, it is indeed not too much to believe he can be the sensation he was in 2013, and that some of his swagger will rub off on his teammates. Already, Zack Wheeler was popping off a little in recent days and "guaranteeing" the Mets will make favored Washington earn the NL East title. Jacob deGrom, last year's NL Rookie of the Year, wants to be even better. Jon Niese and David Wright are healthy again. Curtis Granderson is reunited with hitting coach Kevin Long, his swing doctor when they were both with the Yankees.
Harvey, who turns 26 this month, claimed to be unaware Friday that most of the other Mets pitchers were standing behind him and watching intently as he warmed up in the bullpen before the game.
But the unusual sight told a lot about how much everyone on the team was eagerly awaiting this day -- not just Harvey or the buzzing near-capacity crowd and extra reporters who'd made the trek from so many other spring training outposts to see how Harvey looked in action. At last.
The answer was the best answer possible: Harvey looked like Harvey again. In every way, it was all systems go.
"The biggest step so far," Harvey said.
How much this day meant to Harvey showed when he went to jog off after taking a toss from first baseman Michael Cuddyer to retire the Tigers' Rajai Davis for the third out in the first inning; Harvey seemed headed for the mound to drop the ball the way he has hundreds of times after retiring a side -- then he caught himself and put the ball back in his glove, presumably as a memento of this milestone in his comeback.
Right then, Harvey seemed to be doing a little time traveling, thinking back to all the difficult months he couldn't pitch, the tedium of rehab, the grind of being apart from the team.
After the game, he told reporters that even the way the crowd cheered Friday was a blast from the past.
"When I left the dugout and was running out to the outfield to warm up, I could hear the fans," Harvey said. "That moment really reminded me of the All-Star Game [in 2013 at Citi Field] and the support that I was given there. That was really special. So that will be something I remember for a long time."
Anyone who saw how he went on to pitch will say the same.
"I feel like I never left," Harvey said.