- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 9, 2015

Matt Harvey’s black cleats dug into the far left side of the rubber during Thursday’s cool afternoon. He had not been in such a position since Aug. 24, 2013 when he was bludgeoned for 13 hits. His torn ulnar collateral ligament needed repair that October, turning his power silent and allowing the surgery scourge of baseball, Tommy John, to yank another star from a major-league mound.

Thursday, he pumped reassurance with every 97-mph fastball. If the time gap was stripped away, there would be no assumptions he operated with a surgically-repaired elbow. His difference-making right arm was almost mundane in its dominance.

Pretty much the same old stuff,” Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond said.

In an era of layers and layers of information, Harvey’s basic line will suffice as explanation of his authority Thursday: six innings pitched, four hits, one walk, nine strikeouts in the New York Mets' 6-3 victory over the Nationals. He started with a 96-mph fastball for a strike. He finished with an 88-mph changeup for his final strikeout. There were no runs allowed.

“I think the excitement of being back on the mound in a regular-season game definitely set in when I was done warming up and walking in,” Harvey said. “I think once we got three outs in the first, realizing I was about to go out to work was pretty exciting.”

The 10-game big league sample he provided in 2012, with its 2.73 ERA bolstered by 70 strikeouts over 59 1/3 innings, was foreshadowing, not misleading. Harvey started the All-Star Game the following season and arguments about his prominence began. Then, derailment. He underwent Tommy John surgery on Oct. 22, 2013, after his mid-August shut down in the same year. The Mets and baseball suffered in his absence.

His recovery period was longer than that of typical Tommy John patients. The surgery has become more commonplace and more precise, often allowing a return to pitching 12 months after the final stitch. Harvey, at times reluctantly, waited. Initially, it appears to have benefited him. During spring training, Harvey struck out 21 and walked one. With the caveat of where the results were recorded, Harvey appeared not only healed, but perhaps improved.

Thursday against the Nationals was the first test of that premise. He struck out Bryce Harper three times, concluding each at-bat with untamable heat: 97-mph fastball, 97-mph fastball and 96-mph fastball. Harper swung in vain at each.

“I’ve said it a million times: He’s going to be Cy Young one day, and everybody knows that,” Harper said. “He one of the toughest at-bats I’ve ever had.”

Others were baffled by sliders and curveballs. The only negative of the day for Harvey was his inability to put down a bunt in the top of the sixth with two on and none out. After bunting a pitch foul for the third strike, he swatted air with the bat and appeared to resist the urge of making solid contact with the concrete dugout steps.

Afterward, Harvey’s voice was as stoic as his fastball was lively. He talked about the long wait to re-climb a mound in the regular season. A couple curveballs crossed in spots he was not thrilled with. And, he’ll swallow coming out after the sixth inning with a gulp and bitter face. Had the game been closer — he left with a 6-0 lead — perhaps an extra inning would have been allotted to him. Not in Thursday’s cold, not with a wide lead, not after finally making it back to the mound more than a year-and-a-half later.

Satisfaction beyond pitching well in his first game comes from the fact the Nationals flicked aside the Mets last season. To open this expectation-filled one, New York took two of three because of better pitching against a Nationals lineup without its No. 1 through No. 3 hitters. Caveats are caveats, and while the Mets mentioned them afterward, they also took pleasure in what followed after providing the markers for consideration.

“With as much expectations and the staff that they have and the team that they have, we have to come in here and play good baseball or else we’re going to get beat,” Harvey said. “We all know that. We knew that coming into the series. Last thing you want to do is either lose the series or get swept the first series of the season.”

The Strasburg-Harper factors were also in play Thursday. Harvey and Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg have been compared following the starburst arrival of each. Strasburg wilted Thursday. Harvey powered through Harper and the rest of the Nationals. If just being back on the mound wasn’t enough for Harvey, the extra pump from opposing those two helped.

“He wants to face the best guys,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “That’s a challenge for him. Two years ago when he faced [the Nationals], he drew Strasburg. This is a guy he’s been compared to and he takes that as a personal challenge.

“When he faces Harp, who is red hot, when he faces [Ryan Zimmerman], who pretty much single-handedly knocked us around [on Wednesday], he takes that, as a, ‘Hey, look, you’re not going to get me,’ kind of attitude. He’s like the big-block bully.”

The bully, for a start, is back. Collins and Harvey warned there are 29 starts, hopefully, remaining. Yet, an emphatic shutdown of the Nationals remains a welcomed beginning.

“When you’ve got a No. 1 guy that you can run out there and you know that, hey, we give him two to three runs a game and he’s going to win 20 games — we got that animal,” Collins said. “He’s going to change the dynamic of what our club is all about.”

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