Apr 26

Summer of ’73 Series: Matlack Takes One On The Head

My series on the “Summer of ’73: The Lost Year,” continues today with a book excerpt from talented author Matthew Silverman, whose work should be familiar to all Mets fans.

Silverman joins us today with a piece on Jon Matlack from his newest book, “Swinging ’73: Baseball’s Wildest Season. You can purchase his works at www.amazon.com

“When the 1973 season is referenced by Mets fans, it is usually only the miraculous finish that comes to mind, how the team that began the last day of August in last place wound up clinching a division title on the first day of October. But how did the Mets, three years removed from the 1969 world championship, get themselves into the kind of jam that required a miracle to rescue them? There was a lot of bad luck, a lack of foresight, and too much forehead in the case of a second-year southpaw named Jon Matlack.” – Matt Silverman

 

After dropping the May 7 series opener to the Mets, 7–2, the Braves stood at 9?17, last in their division and second only to the 5?19 Cardinals for the worst start in baseball. The next night looked to be a rerun, with the Mets holding a 3–1 lead in the seventh with Jon Matlack, one of the game’s top young lefties, on the mound. Atlanta’s lineup had firepower, but Marty Perez wasn’t one of the big guns. In 310 career games to that point, he was a .230 hitter with a slugging percentage of just .294. Batting in front of the legendary Aaron in manager Eddie Mathews’s lineup, no one was going to pitch around Perez, especially with the bases full, two outs, and Matlack holding that two-run lead with a light rain falling. Perez worked the count to two balls, two strikes, and Matlack threw a curve that he thought the batter went around on. The umpires said no. Here comes the payoff pitch . . .

51m8pXGhKWL“I’m trying to nail down this game,” Matlack recalls. “I overthrew the next pitch. It was a fastball, and I landed really hard when I threw it. I lost sight of the ball to the plate. I could see him swing and hear the bat crack, but I don’t pick up the baseball until it’s right on top of me. I barely got the fingers of my left hand in front of my face. It hit my fingers [on the mitt], hit my cap, and it hit me just over the left eye. They tell me—I don’t know because I couldn’t see it—but it went from my forehead into the dugout. It cost me two runs and ultimately cost me the ballgame.”

The sudden tie fell to secondary importance during this frightening moment at Shea Stadium. Right fielder Rusty Staub, shaking his head at the memory of it years later, summed up his teammates’ reaction: “We were just all thrilled that he wasn’t dead.” Dee Matlack wasn’t even sure of that as the trainer came out and pulled a tarp over her prone husband’s body as the rain fell.

“They’re messing with me, and it’s raining,” he thought as catcher Jerry Grote and his teammates gathered around him. “My wife thinks I’m dead because they cover me up with a tarp.” Still conscious and bleeding from his head, the dazed pitcher thought he’d been struck in the mouth until things came into sharp, painful focus. “I can see my forehead at this point. I can see it literally swollen up to where I can see it. I had a whale of a headache and felt very weak.”

First baseman Ed Kranepool stood over Matlack as he was attended to at Shea. “You think about Herb Score,” he said, recalling the sensational Indians southpaw hit in the face with a line drive against the Yankees in 1957. “It changed his whole career. Matlack was very fortunate.”

Like Score at the time of the injury, Matlack was a 23-year-old southpaw and recent Rookie of the Year winner with seemingly unlimited potential. Matlack had been the lone ray of sunshine to emerge in the wake of the Nolan Ryan trade. As a rookie taking Ryan’s place in the rotation in 1972, he won 15 games, threw 4 shutouts, and compiled an ERA (2.32) more than half a run per game better than ace Tom Seaver’s. Matlack also had better luck than Score, who came back a year after being hit but left baseball by age 28.

“That’s the first I hear his name,” says Matlack of Score. “I was reading the paper the next day in the hospital—there’s my picture and this guy I don’t recognize. It tells me about how Herb Score got hit and never came back and all this kind of stuff. I can’t say I wasn’t apprehensive about the whole thing, but I was of the belief that the only reason I got hit was because I was unable to track the ball. Had I been able to see the ball, one of two things would have happened—I would have defended myself, caught it or otherwise would have been able to get out of the way. Through lack of seeing it was what caused me to get hit. That’s what kept me moving forward, thinking that when I got back everything would be fine because I was going to see the ball. I wasn’t going to overthrow fastballs, so I was going to be OK.”

Matlack was going to be OK, but he sustained a fractured skull—and that was how it went for most of 1973 for the Mets: peculiar bounces, painful injuries, bad luck. With Matlack on his way to the hospital, the Braves scored five more runs in the inning, saddling the southpaw with a 10–6 loss as well as a throbbing, swollen head. The Mets found all kinds of ways to lose both games and players for most of 1973.

Though the Mets won four straight immediately after Matlack went down, the team stumbled to a 34?51 mark over the next three months that saw the manager nearly lose his job while players continued to go down with bizarre injuries. Eight different Mets hit the disabled list in 1973—the most in franchise history to that point—and that figure didn’t even include Matlack, who didn’t go on the DL after getting hit. He missed just two starts, fractured skull and all.

Matthew Silverman is author of 10 books on baseball. He blogs regularly at metsilverman.com and tweets @metsilverman.

Apr 14

Harvey Proving To Be “The Real Deal”

It is a misnomer to say Matt Harvey is the first Mets’ pitcher worth anticipating watching since Dwight Gooden.

The Mets have had several pitchers who made you wonder in anticipation before their starts over the years, but it was what they might do that day or for that season.

HARVEY: How good can he become? (AP)

HARVEY: How good can he become? (AP)

However, they have had three in their five-decade history that by the magic in their arms and icy cold demeanor forced you to wonder if you weren’t watching one of the great ones.

And, when you knew you were, you considered yourself lucky.

There’s Tom Seaver and Gooden, of course, now it is Harvey making you wonder.

Yesterday Harvey lost a no-hitter with two outs in the seventh inning in what turned out to be a 4-2 victory in frigid Minnesota. In that game, Harvey not only lowered his ERA to a microscopic 0.82, but became just the third pitcher since 1945 to start the season with three consecutive starts of three or fewer hits allowed in seven-plus innings.

The others were Nolan Ryan, who threw seven no-hitters, and trivia-question answer Jim Rooker.

So far, Harvey has given up six hits and six walks with 25 strikeouts in 22 innings. We could spend all day discussing some of Harvey’s early-season numbers, not to mention what he could finish with in 15 years.

Harvey didn’t throw a no-hitter in the minors or at North Carolina, but had a couple in high school in Connecticut.

Pitchers will frequently say they weren’t aware they were pitching a no-hitter, but Harvey knew. He has a unique sense of awareness for someone with only 13 major league starts.

“No, I knew. I knew,’’ Harvey said. “I peeked a couple of times, but I really didn’t know until the fourth or fifth inning or so.’’

He just seems to know, and that’s what makes him special.

In a tweet, Gooden called Harvey, “the real deal.’’

It sure looks that way.

Mar 07

Harvey And d’Arnaud Could Be A Long Time Team

Matt Harvey in PSL (Photo credit: Larry Marano, NY Post)There’s a twinge of anticipation this morning as Matt Harvey gets the ball today against the Miami Marlins. Stephen Strasburg is an exceptional talent in Washington, but in Harvey the Mets also have a young arm this franchise can build around.

If there’s one thing the Mets are noted for it is the development of young pitchers. Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan, Dwight Gooden and now Harvey.

How long, or now successful he will become is one of baseball’s delightful mysteries because this could be the start of something special.

“I am excited about getting the chance to work and grow with him,’’ said catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud, who isn’t in the lineup today against the Marlins “It has been fun so far.’’

Harvey is coming off a start in which he and d’Arnaud were crossed up, but there was a show of poise on both parts as they met at the mound to get their signs correct.

“It’s a matter of trust,’’ d’Arnaud said. “He has to trust what I put down, and he has to trust himself that it is the right pitch.’’

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Jun 09

Don’t Blame No-Hit Pitch Count For Johan Santana’s Bad Start

There’s a lot of reasons to like Terry Collins, and falling on the sword last night for Johan Santana’s bad outing is another one of them. Collins lamented all week of running up Santana’s pitch count.

SANTANA: Didn't have it.

He did it again after the Yankees shelled Santana last night, saying all those home runs was the result of rust.

“I am responsible for the way he pitched,” Collins said. “He was rusty. The command of his stuff was not as sharp as it’s been the past three or four or five starts. It was my doing tonight. … We erred on the side of caution, and it cost us the game.”

The Mets lost 9-1, so there were a lot of reasons why they lost. It was admirable of Collins to take the blame – other Mets managers failed to do so – but it wasn’t needed.

Collins attributed Santana’s rust to pushing him back two days after the lefty ace’s 134-pitch no-hitter. Collins said he did it out of caution. Remember, this was a $20-million pitcher coming off shoulder surgery. Collins was in a no-win situation last week. He either kept Santana in the game and possibly risk injury or pull him and the no-hitter is gone.

Santana said he could have gone on regular rest, but also said he was on board with Collins’ decision. Santana said last night was just one of those things and there’s no other way to think of it.

Santana had been of a sharp roll, so maybe he was due. Santana’s command was off, but his velocity was there and that’s one way to judge his shoulder was fine.

There’s no telling when a pitcher’s arm will give out. Nolan Ryan’s lasted for over 20 years, then one day something went. It happens, and it happens in a variety of ways.

Right now, Santana is pitching well for the most part and is healthy. He could remain this way for the rest of his career, or next month could run into problems. We’re after the fact now; he’s pitched since the 134-pitch game. If something happens in the future it would be impossible to pin it on the no-hitter.

Just enjoy Santana now for what he’s done, and also be grateful for a guy like Collins, who continually shows he’s the right guy for the job.

 

 

Jun 02

Johan Santana Thundered For Mets Before Rains Came

It poured last night, and even if that smudge on the left field line was rubbed out, nothing could wash away what Johan Santana did in throwing the first no-hitter in Mets’ history.

After 8,020 games, and the likes of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan, Dwight Gooden and David Cone throwing magic for them the previous 50 years, Santana just missed throwing the Mets’ 36th one hitter.

SANTANA: Waving to crowd (AP)

We know the numbers because the no-hit streak became a part of franchise lore, to be announced nearly every day after the opponent’s first hit. It will be interesting to hear how the Cardinals’ first hit today will be broadcast.

Who knows, maybe the Mets will throw a few more in the coming years, but there is nothing like the first. Jon Niese, R.A. Dickey and John Maine came close in recent seasons, but it was special because it was Santana, who showed extraordinary focus against the National League’s premier offense and overcame the tendency to wander and shift into cruise control with an 8-0 lead.

He was aided by an umpire’s blown call – the streak would be alive today with instant replay – but for one night baseball karma was with the Mets, the way it was during the Summer of 69 and on that crisp October night when Mookie Wilson’s grounder snaked up the first base line and scooted underneath Bill Buckner’s glove.

Perhaps karma was with the Mets because after so many snake bites and near misses – many with Santana on the mound – they deserved to have one to go their way. Logically, it isn’t supposed to work that way in sports, but the Mets always defied logic, just as Santana’s comeback from serious surgery came against conventional medical wisdom.

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