Monday, June 29, 2015

The Amazin' Matz!

After sitting through 7 pretty boring innings of Baseball, I suppose the fans who meekly trickled out of Citi Field after Saturday's game had come to its merciful end couldn't be blamed. However, the real action for the day was just about to take place. Steven Matz, the Stony Brook, NY native, was finally going to make his Major League debut. The latest in what's become an almost annual string of hotshot Mets Pitching Prospects to ascend, Matz was accompanied to his start by a few hundred friends and family, plus an extended family of fans ready to see him follow in the footsteps of Harvey, Wheeler, deGrom, Syndergaard, Montero, Familia, Hefner, Schwinden, Mejia and Pelfrey. OK, Maybe just the first four in that list.

Matz certainly arrived with hype. After all, he'd been wiping the floor with the PCL for the first 3 months of the season. But for the first time I can remember, I walked into a souvenir shoppe at Citi Field and saw racks loaded with MATZ 32 T-shirts before my man had ever thrown a pitch in anger at the Major League level. And not only that, people were gobbling them up. Prescient? Perhaps, but nobody in their wildest dreams could have seen the kind of debut Matz was going to embark upon.

It was supposed to begin at 1:10pm. It didn't begin until 4:38pm, and in that time, you probably couldn't have blamed Matz for developing a healthy case of debut jitters. His first pitch to Brandon Phillips appeared something in homage to Bill Pulsipher, as it sailed off of Johnny Monell's glove and clear to the backstop. Matz's 5th pitch was a strike, so much so that Phillips launched it deep into the gap in Left Field, over John Mayberry's head and, at least as far as I could tell, over the orange line for a Home Run. Or was it? Mayberry played the ball in and Phillips was on first, so maybe I was wrong, but I didn't think so, and when Bryan Price, who was actually awake after watching his team play an awfully placid 7 innings of Baseball in the early game, challenged and won, the Reds had a 1-0 lead and Matz's dream day was off to a nightmarish start.

Then, of course, Matz settled down and got down to business. He got Votto and Frazier, walked Jay Bruce and then struck out Marlon Byrd for his first K in the big leagues. He displayed a fastball that touched 95mph, which was nice, but what impressed me more was the fact that he kept mixing in a curve that floated in at a positively Bugs Bunny-like 75mph and a changeup, and he wasn't afraid to throw any of these pitches at any given moment. The Reds could have read a scouting report on him but it wouldn't have helped. Matz kept them constantly guessing. Sure, it helps that the Reds have a mostly miserable lineup (and during the 1st game I mused that they looked like a team that just didn't give a shit), but there are legitimately good hitters on that team and you still have to get them out. And so Matz went out and got them.

The fact that he did well pitching was just fine, and not terribly surprising. But he had a slight wrinkle to his game up his sleeve that nobody really saw coming, and that's what turned this game from a really nice debut into the stuff of legend.

In the 2nd inning, Darrell Ceciliani, batting 5th in the Mets C-lineup (yeah, they ran out the C-lineup for this one, replete with Ceciliani, Mayberry, Campbell, Monell and Wilmer Flores batting cleanup) reached on an error. Mayberry and Monell did nothing productive, and with two outs and the pitcher on deck, Josh Smith walked Eric Campbell intentionally. The logic of course being that you go after the pitcher making his Major League debut with two outs. Nobody would argue against that. So, Matz comes to the plate and I noted that he hit right handed but threw left handed, the opposite of Syndergaard and deGrom. Smith went right after him and Matz reared back and took a big time hack at the 1st pitch, but he missed. "Well," I said, "at least he's not getting cheated."

Matz then took a similar swing at the second pitch, however this time he connected and rammed a shot to dead center, over Billy Hamilton's head and off the wall. Ceciliani and Campbell both scored and Matz found himself on 2nd with a double, 2 RBI, a lead, and a stadium full of fans bouncing off the rafters with joy, not only because the kid got a big hit, but because someone on the team finally came through.

But Matz was only getting warmed up. In the 3rd, he shot off the mound to field a Hamilton bunt and threw him out by a good few steps. "It's the Steven Matz Show," a fan around me yelled. Matz followed by getting the revenge strikeout on Phillips, fooling him badly on a changeup with 2 strikes, and then getting Votto to swing through a curveball for another K. Todd Frazier, the New Jersey boy, reached Matz for a bomb of a Home Run leading off the 4th to tie the game 2-2, but Matz was undaunted. Frazier's going as well as anyone in baseball right now, so there's no shame in giving up a HR to a hitter like that.

Still, that meant the Mets needed to score more than 2 runs in order to win, and the Mets hadn't scored more than 2 runs in a game in over a week. So, what do they do? Let Matz take care of it, of course. Smith once again walked Campbell leading off the Mets 5th, bringing up Matz in a bunt situation. Except I don't think anyone actually wanted him to bunt. Smith certainly didn't give him an opportunity to do so, running a 3-ball count before Matz took a strike and then bunted one foul. So with 2 strikes, the bunt was off, and so was Campbell, so of course Matz just swung and pulled the ball right through the vacated hole at Shortstop and into Left Field, sending Campbell to 3rd where he scored on Curtis Granderson's subsequent Double. The Mets then had a golden opportunity to blow the game open, except that they turned into pumpkins and could neither lift a fly ball deep enough to score Matz or get a hit to break the game open, and the game moved on to the 6th with the Mets ahead 3-2, with 4 hits, 2 of which were by Matz.

The Mets rallied again in the 6th, with Mayberry getting a hit, and Monell getting a hit, and me nearly passing out because those two things happened in succession, and then Campbell getting hit, and then the bases were loaded and everyone was on their feet because, guess what, Steven Matz was coming to the plate. And I figured he didn't have to hit a Grand Slam, because that would be somewhat apocalyptic, but if he just got a single and drove in 2 runs, he'd bring the damn house down. Matz worked the count to 2-2 before, in the words of Matz's Grandfather, Holy Shit, he got another hit, a line drive over Phillips' head to score 2 runs and give the Mets a 5-2 lead. One batter later, he was on the front end of a potential DP ball from Tejada, except that he made a Major League take-out slide on Phillips, forcing a bad throw that bounced away from Votto and allowed Campbell to score another run.

Matz had at this point generated so much excitement with his bat that it was easy to overlook the fact that he'd been cruising through the game on the mound. Aside from the 2 Home Runs, Matz had allowed 3 hits going into the 7th, which I figured would be his last inning. He gave up a leadoff single to Byrd, which didn't help. After Collins ran through a majority of his bullpen in the early game, getting through 7 innings would be huge. Brayan Pena also singled. But Matz didn't break a sweat. He got Eugenio Suarez to slap into an easy 6-4-3 DP and then got Unknown Outfielder Jason Bourgeois to strike out, his 6th of the game, and was serenaded with yet another Standing Ovation as he walked off the mound, with 100 pitches under his belt and assumedly done for the day.

But he wasn't. Collins sent him back for the 8th, to everyone's delight, in spite of the pitch count, and tried to squeeze another inning out of him. He almost got there—he got Hamilton and Phillips, but then walked Votto and that was the end of his day, after 7.2 innings and 100 pitches, allowing 2 runs, 5 hits, 3 walks and 6 strikeouts, picking up 3 hits in 3 At Bats, 4 RBI, a record for a Pitcher in his Major League Debut, and no less than 5 Standing Ovations. And for the rest of the day, Matz was the toast of New York.

How many times do you see someone charge into the Major Leagues like that? Obviously nobody knows where he'll go from here, and most assuredly he will have days where he'll take his lumps, and he won't get any hits, and the lineup won't score him any runs and he'll lose a tough game. But Mets fans have a habit of latching on to guys like this. When a player who's had some bumps on the road to the Majors as Matz did, when he's a local guy like Matz is, or when he's a home-grown guy, and he comes in and lights the stadium on fire like he did yesterday, well, Steven Matz has endeared himself to Mets fans forever. He's going to be one of those guys that can do no wrong in the eyes of the fans.

At least that's how it feels this morning.

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