Beneath Steven Matz’s magnificent throttling of the Pirates Saturday evening lay a stone cold sobering fact. Mets manager Mickey Callaway, that embattled former pitching coach whose pitching management is under as much fire as almost everything else around the Mets, rolled serious dice to make room for it.
“To do it in 99 pitches is something else,” Callaway said of Matz’s masterpiece of a five-hit shutout. “That doesn’t happen too often. That was tremendous. That was unbelievable. We really needed him to do that.”
All he left out was “stupendous” and “colossal” and wearing a ringmaster’s striped pants, tailcoat, and top hat while rapping his cane on the Citi Field entrances, in describing maybe the single best Mets pitching performance of the season. By a guy who’d been exiled to the Mets’ bullpen for a spell before the All-Star break.
Callaway didn’t dare suggest what might have happened if Matz hadn’t found himself a way to work with efficiency and with a well-balanced blend between his slider, his changeup, and his sinkerball, not to mention if the Mets’ defense hadn’t been just as efficient behind him when he needed them to be the most.
Because sending Matz back to the mound late in games or the third or more time around the enemy batting order was previously a balance between a tightrope ride and a flying trapeze act that includes buttering the bar.
Matz came into Saturday’s game with the opposing order posting a lifetime .278/.323/.431 slash line against him when he’s still in for a third time around it. He’s least vulnerable historically the second time around the order and most vulnerable the first time, for all his talent. But it was still a considerable risk to let Matz even think about shooting for the complete shutout.
It would have been about twenty times the risk for Callaway to even think about going to his bullpen. Especially when Matz entered the seventh with a mere 1-0 lead that everyone in Queens knows is rarely if ever safe once the bullpen gate opens and out comes another bull. Clearly the skipper had to think fast. With about minus two seconds worth of time to think.
But closer Edwin Diaz, who’s suffered enough misuse and abuse so far, was deemed available somewhat officially, except that when he’s nursing a sore big toe on his landing foot you’re liable to be nursing a ninth-inning beating if you send him out and his delivery is hijacked.
Late-inning option Luis Avilan worked in three straight games before Saturday. Seth Lugo, who saved Friday night’s 6-3 Mets win, worked in two straight. Callaway might not have wanted to trust mightily struggling Jeurys Familia, even though Familia hadn’t pitched in a game in two days but was lit for two earned in two thirds of an inning against the Padres two days before the Pirates sailed into town.
And, perhaps re-learning a lesson about prudent bullpen usage, Callaway probably didn’t want to burn Justin Wilson—arguably the least arsonic Mets reliever the past week plus (five gigs, four innings, one earned run, four punchouts)—a second straight night.
So with Matz getting all those ground outs Callaway stood by him. And how could he not, when Matz put on a clinic in finding and using something other than pure raw power to get outs, something other than a howitzer to pull himself back from behind.
“The changeup got me back in some counts,” said Matz, who got first pitch strikes on only half his 31 batters. “So I just think, really mixed everything . . . It was just a recipe.”
Be gone, food processors. Welcome home, old-fashioned Mixmaster. Control the blending more directly. Between speeds when need be. Take that, all you guys trying to throw the proverbial lamb chops past the proverbial wolves. No wonder the game took a measly two hours and ten minutes and Matz missed a 100-pitch tally by one.
All of a sudden it didn’t seem all that tough to let Matz begin the seventh with a mere 1-0 lead. Oh, yes, he even shook off first and second and one out in the sixth by getting Melky Cabrera to dial an Area Code 5-4-3 that went around the horn smooth as whipped cream.
Then Michael Conforto made only the second Met hit of the game off Pirates starter Trevor Williams count with a drive into the right field seats in the bottom of that sixth. “Unfortunately for us,” Williams said after the game, “I was the one that blinked first.”
Matz and the Mets were so efficient that they almost blinked through the top of the seventh despite a two-out single. But in the bottom, after Todd Frazier reached on a one-out pop that Pirates shortstop Jung Ho Kang inexplicably let fall to the ground, J.D. Davis hit the first Williams service of the plate appearance, a four-seam fastball right down the chute, right over the center field fence.
Then Matz zipped through the top of the eighth with three straight ground outs and shoved Kevin Newman’s leadoff single aside in the top of the ninth to put the Pirates away on a fly out, a strikeout, and a ground out.
The Pirates played most of the game without manager Clint Hurdle, who was ejected in the first trying to keep Starling Marte from ejection after Marte huffed over a called third strike that ended the inning. Hurdle wasn’t thrilled about plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt’s slightly generous strike zone, and it did look as though Wendelstedt pulled a slightly too-swift trigger on the skipper.
But in fairness Wendelstedt blew a pocketful of strikes against both sides. One minute, Williams and Matz got strikes that were obvious balls, the next both pitchers got balls that were obvious strikes, just a little too often. It didn’t stop Williams from no-hitting the Mets through four and two thirds and pitching his own splendid seven innings ruined only by the pair of Met bombs. Any more than it stopped Matz from running the speed dial full spread against the Pirates.
The game left the Mets 9-5 since the All-Star break and the Pirates losers of seven straight and 2-15 since the break. Nobody’s quite ready to pronounce the Pirates officially doomed, nobody’s quite ready to pronounce the Mets officially back from the living dead, either, but it sure felt like the Mets got real old-fashioned pennant-race pitching.