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 25

Are Mets Marketing Harvey Too Much, Too Soon?

While approaching Citi Field last night one couldn’t help but notice the monstrous digital image of Matt Harvey on a video board outside the stadium with the screaming caption, “Harvey-licious.’’

When logging onto the Mets’ website there was an advertisement plugging Harvey T-Shirts. And, all of this is for a guy who was starting just his 15th major league game.

HARVEY: Mets marketing a rock star. (AP)

HARVEY: Mets marketing a rock star. (AP)

I am waiting for the Mets to put him on a banner outside the stadium, joining the likes of Keith Hernandez and David Wright; Ed Kranepool and Bud Harrelson; Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack.

Make no mistake, Harvey is a good Met, but not yet a great one. There is plenty of time for him to reach that distinction.

“I don’t get caught up in the marketing angle,’’ manager Terry Collins said when asked if this is too much, too soon, much the way it was last winter for the Knicks and Lin-sanity.

“I don’t thing he gets caught up in it, either. Let’s ride the wave. This guy is ready.’’

He might have been ready last night, but clearly was not sharp against the Los Angeles Dodgers despite the relaxed definition of a quality start. The no-decision indicates Harvey still has growing to do, but does not diminish what he’s already achieved.

“I didn’t like it,’’ Harvey said of his performance in Wednesday night’s 7-3, 10-inning victory. “Tonight was about winning, and we did that. … I have work to do.’’

That humility is why the Mets believe they have something special. Technically, it was a quality start – three runs given up in six innings – but Harvey knows he has to do better than 90 pitches. He knows that many pitches should get him to, if not through, the eighth inning.

History is full of powerful young arms that captured the imagination of not only their fan base, but also those across the nation. Look at Tom Seaver, Vida Blue, Mark Fydrych, Fernando Valenzuela, Ron Guidry, Dwight Gooden and Stephen Strasburg.

The Mets are banking on Harvey to join this prestigious list. Last night won’t remove him from consideration and won’t stop the rumblings of him possibly starting the All-Star Game at Citi Field in July.

The Mets are riding the Harvey wave, but there is an underlying fear is the attention could be too much this early. The expectations of Harvey increase with each start, of which last night’s was nationally telecast by ESPN.

It has been a long time since the Mets had a pitcher of Harvey’s marketability. Gooden perhaps nearly 30 years ago? Or Seaver? No other homegrown Met arm comes immediately to mind.

Gooden was such a long time ago, so you can’t blame the organization for being excited about having somebody this charismatic to promote. As much as Collins raves about Harvey’s demeanor and composure, a case can be made for going overboard. All this attention is a lot to absorb.

The Mets made sure to handle Harvey with kid gloves before bringing him up, so why push things now?

Let him concentrate on pitching first and not being a rock star.

Please follow me on Twitter @jdelcos

 

Apr 23

John Buck: From Trade Bait To Indispensable?

Several times this season John Buck’s fast start fueled speculation that with Travis d’Arnaud’s promotion the Mets might deal him at the trade deadline.

After all, who doesn’t want a hot-hitting catcher who calls a crisp game behind the plate? Most every team would and that includes the Mets, who, along with Buck exceeded early expectations.

BUCK: Proving very valuable.

BUCK: Proving very valuable.

It’s not as if Buck has gone from trade bait to indispensable, but he isn’t going anywhere any time soon. And, that has more to do than with d’Arnaud’s broken foot that will keep him out for two months. Buck is simply the Mets’ best offensive weapon and has been solid behind the plate, drawing raves from Matt Harvey and Jon Niese.

However, manager Terry Collins said it best: “John Buck seems to be in the middle of everything that’s good right now.’’

Buck homered in the Mets’ 2-0 victory over Washington Sunday, a comprehensive display of the fastest start of his career. There was the homer, giving him seven and a league-high 22 RBI, but also his defense and the game he called for Dillon Gee.

The Mets’ pride is their young pitchers, and Buck could be the same steading influence Jerry Grote once was to Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack.

Harvey has been the darling at 4-0 and a sub-1.00 ERA, swears by Buck. There’s no way the Mets break up that duo.

Harvey said he’s shaken off Buck maybe five or six times this year ins describing the same instinctual chemistry a quarterback would have with his best receiver.

“He already knows what’s coming,’’ Harvey said. “It’s really fun every time I take the mound and see him back there. It’s just positive energy. It’s more fuel.’’

It’s not luck or coincidence that has Buck putting down the correct fingers. It’s the culmination of hard work spent in the first nine years of his career. He keeps copious notes on his pitchers and opposing hitters, and they complement the game plan drawn up by pitching coach Dan Warthen.

On the day of the game Buck meets early with Warthen and the pitcher to go over the scouting reports and film. Later, he’ll meet with the pitcher privately. However, he talks to all the pitchers throughout the week, not just on the days they start. The communication is constantly flowing.

Harvey said Buck’s preparation is inspirational to the point where he’ll incorporate what he’s learned throughout his career.

“He knows what the hitters are going to do,’’ said Harvey. “The studying that he does and the video that he watches and the plan that he comes up with for each individual pitcher, it’s something that I’m learning still. And it’s awesome.’’

Buck and d’Arnaud’s lockers were side-by-side in spring training, and it wasn’t by accident, either.

“I like to pick his brain,’’ d’Arnaud said this spring. “He’s very easy to talk with and I’ve learned a lot from being around him.’’

Buck said in spring training he understood he was brought here to help d’Arnaud and that attitude hasn’t changed despite the latter’s injury. It’s not as if when he heard the news he moved out of his apartment and bought a house.

“My stance is still the same,’’ Buck said. “I truly feel if I do good, then he does good. I’ve been around too much to take positive thoughts out of something bad happening to someone else. … Until someone tells me otherwise, I’ll just keep going about my business.’’

Nobody will be telling Buck otherwise any time soon.

Please follow me on Twitter @jdelcos

Apr 20

Matt Harvey’s Star Keeps Burning

Tom Seaver. Mike Mussina. Roger Clemens. Dwight Gooden.

Matt Harvey has been compared, whether it be stuff, demeanor or franchise history, in some way has been compared to them all.

Yes, it is not fair. Yes, it places unreasonable pressure. But, that’s the nature of covering and following sports. Managers, general managers and players all do it, too.

HARVEY: Keeps burning. (AP)

HARVEY: Keeps burning. (AP)

Harvey is getting a lot of that these days, and after beating Stephen Strasburg last night, he’ll be getting more.

Gooden, who tweeted Harvey is “the real deal,’’ was spotted last night on the Citi Field video board giving a thumbs-up sign. It was in part acknowledging the ovation; it was in part recognition of who he was watching.

“Yeah, absolutely,’’ Harvey said when asked if he was aware of Gooden’s presence and tweet. “It made it special. I grew up watching that guy. I wanted to be like that guy.’’

Whether Harvey has a career like Gooden, Mussina or Mike Pelfrey, we can’t say now. What we can say is all the arrows are pointed in the right direction.

“A lot of guys can throw 98,’’ manager Terry Collins said. “I like his competitive make-up. … Fear of failure is not in Matt Harvey’s make-up.’’

Harvey doesn’t just want to be a good pitcher; he wants to be the best. Collins said Harvey was in tune with the expectations of going against Strasburg, and the Mets’ present and future ace admitted to being amped early.

When it was over, Harvey was all humility – one of his more likable qualities – when asked about the “Har-vey’s better, Har-vey’s better,’’ chant that consumed Citi Field.

Harvey, in his first full season, is composed enough to know he’ll face Strasburg many more times in the future, and the Mets play the Nationals 18 times a season. This isn’t the NBA; there’s no trash talking. Harvey knew better than to stir the pot.

“It’s nice to hear, but I’ve got a long way to go,’’ Harvey said. “I appreciate the fans and the support and all that. But we’re here to win. We’re the New York Mets. It’s not just one guy out there. Every time I take the ball I’m trying to win for the team.’’

That all sound good, but Harvey knows words are cheap and he has to do it on the mound. That’s why Harvey was more satisfied with getting out of a bases-load, no-outs jam in the seventh rather than the two-hit shutout he had after the sixth.

“I knew I would have to pitch there,’’ Harvey said. “I knew I would have to throw strikes.’’

The Mets took a 4-0 lead into the inning, but the panic meter was running high when the Nationals had a run in and loaded the bases. Harvey knew what was required of him.

“That was a big challenge – bases loaded with no outs,’’ Harvey said. “That’s a tough lineup. At any point it felt like it could unravel and things could have gone the other way.’’

It didn’t because Harvey wouldn’t let it.

“That’s the mark of an ace right there,’’ Collins said. “That’s why we can’t say enough things about him. Games like this can lead to a great season.’’

Harvey has a strong work ethic, but that runs deeper than conditioning and working on his breaking pitches in the bullpen. Not only does Harvey work his body, but also his mind and that’s part of the package.

Harvey pitched seven innings last night in improving to 4-0. His goal is over 200, so there’s a long road ahead.

“I’m going to take the 24-hour rule and definitely be happy about this start and this win,’’ Harvey said. “And after it’s over, tomorrow, it’s time to work hard and get prepared for the next start.’’

They said Seaver once said the same in comparing Harvey to him. Perhaps one day they’ll say that about another hot property when they compare him to Harvey.

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.