What a strange season it’s been for Matt Harvey. Statistically, Harvey was one of the Majors’ worst starting pitchers in the first half, running an ERA north of 7 into the All-Star break while taking the ball more or less every fifth day. In the second half, he’s been nearly untouchable.
Harvey’s second-half resurgence continued Friday night at Comerica Park, when the veteran right-hander put together his third consecutive scoreless outing to lead the Orioles to their 4-3 win over the Tigers. Backed by homers by Pedro Severino (two) and Ryan Mountcastle, Harvey scattered six hits over 6 1/3 shutout innings, striking out five to outpitch Tarik Skubal. He’s now unscored upon over 18 1/3 consecutive innings dating back to July 18, the longest such streak of Harvey’s career.
“Just excellent,” O’s manager Brandon Hyde said. “Excellent pitching. He’s not trying to rear back and throw 96 and miss in the middle. ... He’s totally under control.”
It was Harvey's third straight start of at least six shutout innings, making him the seventh pitcher in Orioles history to accomplish that feat. That streak held when Paul Fry stranded two runners in relief of Harvey in the seventh; an inning later, Tanner Scott let three runs score without recording an out, hours after the Orioles decided to keep their bullpen intact at the Trade Deadline. The club entertained potential deals for both Scott and Fry on Friday afternoon, ultimately shipping Freddy Galvis to Philadelphia in their only major move.
The Orioles signed Harvey to a Minor League deal in the offseason hoping, in their best-case scenario, that he’d win a rotation job and blossom into a trade candidate come July. Had this stretch of dominance come sooner, he surely would have. As it was, Harvey won three of his first four decisions and pitched serviceably into May before a disastrous string of 11 starts saw his ERA jump from 3.60 to 7.70. He’s allowed just 11 baserunners during this streak, striking out 11 and walking one.
“I was just happy for him, because this guy has been battling,” Hyde said. “To be able to do what he’s doing, go three starts like that post-All-Star break, it picked us up in a big way.”
So, what’s different? Command, yes. Control, yes. But Harvey has also broadened his pitch mix over the past few starts, slicing his four-seam fastball usage in favor of more changeups and curveballs. He threw four pitches -- four-seam, slider, curveball, change -- at least 15 percent of the time Friday; over the past three starts, he’s thrown each pitch at least 17 percent of the time. Meanwhile, his season changeup rate entering Friday was 10 percent, 12 percent for the curve, and 38 percent for the four-seamer.
“I’m not trying to pitch the way I used to, which was mostly fastballs and sliders," Harvey said. "Pitching backwards, just trusting my stuff and trying to mix things up. Being unpredictable. When I was throwing 97-100 mph with a 92-93 mph slider, things were a little easier. Now it’s about pitching, pounding the zone, getting guys off balance. That’s been the biggest difference.”
Said Severino: “He’s got a good tempo and is executing every pitch. It’s really tough for hitters to guess what pitch is coming.”
Is this new Harvey here to stay? That remains to be seen. What’s discernable is the possibility that Harvey is pitching to extend his career, and how it might have taken a stretch like this to do just that. Less than a month ago, it was easy to imagine Harvey running out of rope in a rotation even slightly less slapdash than the Orioles were without John Means. Now, one can imagine Harvey putting together a strong second half and parlaying that success into a job next winter.
Asked what he wanted to accomplish down the stretch, Harvey replied boldly.
“In a perfect world, you don’t give up a run,” he said. “But that’s probably not realistic. Or maybe it is. You never know.”
Going, going … caught?
The biggest scare of the night came an inning after Harvey departed, in the eighth, when Scott loaded the bases to bring Miguel Cabrera to the plate representing the go-ahead run. Hyde summoned right-hander Dillon Tate, who hung a 1-1 slider that Cabrera -- sitting on 497 career home runs -- sent sizzling to the center-field wall.
By the time it settled into Cedric Mullins’ glove for an OK-you-can-exhale-now sac fly, Cabrera’s ball traveled 422 feet, per Statcast. It tied the longest out made against the Orioles since Statcast’s introduction in 2015, and it would’ve been a home run in 27 other big league parks.
“Not on this field,” Severino said. “If we were playing in Baltimore, yes, maybe twice. But on this field, it’s too big, especially right-center. At night the ball doesn’t fly too much. He got very good contact, but on this field the ball doesn’t fly during night games.”