When big stage calls, Harvey welcomes spotlight
Dwight Gooden once relished his Friday night starts at Shea Stadium, when the sounds of a baseball game seemed just a tick louder, the sights a hair brighter.
"It's an electric feeling," recalled former Mets infielder and current third-base coach Tim Teufel, smiling at the thought of Friday evenings with Gooden on the mound. "It's 'game on.' It's a chance to see something real special. Those types of talents don't come around very often."
A generation later, two such talents are about to collide at Citi Field, where the sounds of the game may seem just a tick louder, the sights a hair brighter.
Matt Harvey read an article recently in which Gooden raved about his Friday nights at Shea. But all the reading in the world will not prepare him for a Friday evening showdown against Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals, in the Mets' most-anticipated pitching matchup of the young season.
"I don't think there's any question Matt gets up for it," manager Terry Collins said. "He loves the big stage."
On paper, it is a clash of two young pitching stars capable of dominating the division for years to come. In Harvey's mind, it is a chance to plant his flag.
"I don't necessarily want to be like anybody else that I'm pitching against," he said. "I want to be my own guy, an individual. Obviously, that's not knocking [Strasburg] in any way. He's one of the best in the game. But for me, I play on the New York Mets. I wear the number that I wear. It's about winning in this clubhouse and winning in New York -- that's what's most important."
It is only natural, of course, to compare Harvey both to Strasburg and Gooden. Like Strasburg, Harvey has established success in the National League East this decade with an upper-90s fastball, posting absurd strikeout rates early in his career. Like Gooden, he has captivated a fan base with his youthful potential.
Such comparisons are more than anecdotal. Consider the numbers for each pitcher over his first 13 Major League starts:
• Harvey: 81 1/3 innings, six wins, five losses, 95 strikeouts, 32 walks, 2.21 ERA.
• Gooden: 82 2/3 innings, six wins, three losses, 96 strikeouts, 35 walks, 2.61 ERA.
• Strasburg: 73 innings, five wins, three losses, 96 strikeouts, 17 walks, 2.71 ERA.
Other recent pitching phenoms, such as Clayton Kershaw, David Price, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, did not come close to posting those types of numbers over their first 13 starts. As prospects, those four were even more highly touted than Harvey, and all have since gone on to win Cy Young Awards.
Gooden enjoyed a special career throughout his 20s, while Strasburg, at 24, appears well on his way to doing the same. Harvey made his debut at 23, so his early dominance came at an older age. But his first 13 starts compare just as favorably to those of recent college stars such as Strasburg and Price.
The gold standard for former college pitchers may be Angels right-hander Jered Weaver, who debuted at age 23 and went 9-1 with a 1.92 ERA over his first 13 starts. But even Weaver did not come close to approaching Harvey's otherworldly strikeout rate.
Strasburg did, entrenching himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball. Strasburg also has the backing of Washington's powerhouse offense, though the Mets have outperformed the Nationals offensively so far this season. Given that trend and given that Friday's Mets-friendly setting at Citi Field, Friday should offer a fair fight between two of the NL's brightest young pitchers.
Understanding all that, Harvey nonetheless downplays the personal comparisons. He and Strasburg met briefly several winters ago, while both were working out at agent Scott Boras' Newport Beach, Calif., training facility. One was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery at the time, while the other was preparing for his first season in professional baseball after signing late in the summer with the Mets.
Three years later, their paths are colliding again.
"Obviously, I'm still new to all this stuff," Harvey said. "It's an exciting time. I'm looking forward to it. I know the extra adrenaline's going to be there."
It's a Friday night in Queens, just like old times. One man who saw plenty of Gooden's Friday starts while managing the Mets in the 1980s, Nationals manager Davey Johnson, said he is glad his former team has "another good young pitcher coming along that's showing a lot of promise." Johnson called Harvey's early success "good for New York" and "good for baseball."
It could also be good for the pulse of a city, as Gooden's Friday night starts once were.
"He's on his way to becoming something like that," Teufel said. "Those people who perform at that type of level fill the seats. People will come out to watch this guy pitch."