The Real Deal: Former UNC star Matt Harvey creates stir for Mets

cwright@newsobserver.comMay 4, 2013 

  • Phenom-enal starts

    Matt Harvey compares favorably to other Mets legends in their first April:

    Age Pitcher Record Year IP ER Ks
    24Matt Harvey4-0201340 1/3746
    19Dwight Gooden3-1198420 1/3726
    22Tom Seaver3-1196728 2/3620
    21Nolan Ryan1-2196819 1/3326

  • Heat wave

    Matt Harvey ranks second among starting pitchers 25 and younger in strikeouts per nine innings and fastball average:

    Pitcher Team K/9  MPH
    Matt MooreRays10.6992.5
    Matt HarveyMets10.2694.7
    Clayton KershawDodgers10.1592.5
    Shelby MillerCardinals9.6892.8
    Stephen StrasburgNationals8.6895.5

— The numbers are historically good. Cy Young good.

So good that Dwight Gooden seemingly devotes every other tweet to the New York Mets’ best pitching prospect since, well, Dwight Gooden. Monday night, Gooden, the original Doctor K, unveiled his own K count to track Matt Harvey’s latest exploits.

“K … KK … KKK … KKKK …. KKKKK #MATTHARVEYCOUNT,” @DocGooden16 tweeted.

Gooden has been gushing for quite some time about the 24-year-old former North Carolina star.

“This kid is better than advertised...looking forward to watching him every 5th day.”

And: “We need to come up with a nickname for this kid... He’s the real deal... Matt ‘THE REAL DEAL’ Harvey!!!”

Gooden is the most decorated admirer in a growing bandwagon. Six starts into his first full season and not quite three years removed from Chapel Hill, Harvey has been compared to Hall of Famers Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan. He’s far more interested in October, but he owned April, just missing joining Gooden and Pedro Martinez as the only Mets to start 5-0 in the first month.

His numbers – 4-0, 1.56 ERA, 10.3 strikeouts per 9 innings – are more unbelievable than Sidd Finch, who wasn’t even real.

Justin Verlander said Harvey reminds him of himself. Curt Schilling said he prefers Harvey over Stephen Strasburg – and he said that before Harvey outdueled the Nationals ace. Elias Sports Bureau twice uncovered stats that put Harvey in Cy Young’s company. The number crunchers recently reported he is the only pitcher since 1900 to strike out more than 100 batters and allow fewer than 25 runs in his first 14 career starts.

New York is in Lin-sanity in spikes mode, and it seems everybody is caught up in it. Well, almost everybody.

“I appreciate it, but …” Harvey said before mentioning “winning” six times in the next 32 seconds.

Humble but hungry

Harvey is the most impressive yet least impressed Met in the locker room, where praise comes from all four corners and in several languages. His Twitter account has almost 36,000 followers, but he has offered exactly three baseball thoughts since the season began.

“Obviously I’m thrilled with the way things have happened,” he said Tuesday in Miami, “but what I’ve done in April obviously doesn’t matter unless I keep doing it in May. ... When my career is over I’ll look back at all that stuff. There’s a lot of things I want to do. There’s a lot of winning to come. I’m a team guy. It’s about winning. It’s about winning world championships. Once that starts happening, that’s the time to look back.

“Right now, I’m trying to do everything I can to help this team. I’m not going to get caught up in what’s going on outside baseball because I’m a baseball player. That comes first more than anything, and winning for the New York Mets is the goal, and that’s what it’s always going to be.”

Harvey plays the modest Clark Kent role well, maybe too well. He spent his off day Thursday as a reporter providing analysis of the Rangers-Capitals NHL playoff game.

He’ll jump back in uniform Sunday for his next start in Atlanta, and the buzz will begin anew.

“I look forward to him pitching,” Mets All-Star-turned-analyst Keith Hernandez said. “Where I live in New York, they’re all Mets fans, and they look forward to the day that he pitches, absolutely, absolutely. Head and shoulders above anybody else.”

Every fifth day has become an event, but the Mets, from the top down, appreciate Harvey’s ability to ignore the circus that surrounds him.

“For his youth, he is very professional in his approach,” Mets general manager Sandy Alderson told ESPN.com. “He was self-confident but not self-indulgent. He knows what he wants to be and has the kind of maturity that suggests he may achieve everything he desires.”

The Mets recently used Twitter to solicit suggestions about what to call their new phenom. Someone proposed “Harvelous.” Dustin Ackley, who spent two seasons in Chapel Hill with Harvey, countered: “Or just call him Matt Harvey.”

Simple. Successful. To the point. Just like his 97-mph fastball.

“I know the hype about him was pretty good,” Mets catcher John Buck said. “The thing that has surprised me is his willingness to want to learn after every start. That’s why he continues to get better, even when it seems like he can’t really even get better at that young of an age. Well, he does get better. It’s because of his relentlessness to not be satisfied.”

Consider Harvey’s most recent outing. He allowed one earned run in 5 1/3 innings – solid by any measure but also his shortest stint this season. He struggled with his command and threw a career-high 121 pitches. But he gave his team a chance to win without his best stuff, the hallmark of an ace.

Harvey’s take? The Mets lost in 15 innings, so “it wasn’t good enough.”

It rarely is.

“I have to deal with the kid every day,” Buck said. “Sometimes I have to give him a reality check of where he is and what he is doing because he expects a lot out of himself. He’s competitive, and that’s what makes him so great, to never be satisfied.”

Growing pains at UNC

Scott Forbes laughs knowingly at the stories. He’s been there. Forbes is UNC’s pitching coach, the man credited with teaching Harvey the devastating slider that has served as the perfect complement to his overpowering fastball.

Harvey arrived in Chapel Hill as the top high school prospect in the country but angry that he slid to the third round of the 2007 draft. Clearly, not good enough. Forbes said it took Harvey one semester to get over that disappointment and start re-investing in his future.

It wasn’t easy. The Tar Heels were loaded with future major leaguers. The hitters, including Ackley, roughed him up in his first intrasquad game, and the talented rotation kept him out of the coveted weekend mix.

“Matt is a perfectionist,” Forbes said. “He had always been so dominant, and that’s what he expected. Some guys walk in and are a Friday night guy right away. He had to work to earn it. But he had to give up 5, 6 runs in his first intrasquad game to realize it.”

There were plenty of other motivational reminders. His sophomore season, for example. Almost all of it.

Forbes said Harvey struggled that summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League. He returned to Chapel Hill for his junior year with a more professional approach. He and Forbes worked on the slider. His command, once his Achilles, became an asset. He always had the ability to throw fastballs by hitters expecting fastballs, but now he could hit corners as well.

Harvey 2.0 led an undermanned Tar Heels team back to the NCAA tournament. The breakthrough came at Clemson, when Harvey threw 158 pitches – the final one recorded at 96 mph – and struck out 15 in a 5-3 complete game victory.

“That outing,” Forbes said, “made Matt realize that he was pretty darned good, that he just went to Clemson and put the team on his back. That’s the day you realized, holy Moses, he’s going to pitch in the major leagues.”

Only the beginning

The 2010 draft wasn’t nearly the nightmare that the 2007 event had been. The Mets took Harvey with the seventh pick in the first round.

He dominated immediately, going 13-5 in two advanced stops in the Mets farm system. He opened last season in Triple A. They couldn’t hit him there, either.

The reality is he spent more time in Chapel Hill than he did in the minor leagues. He hasn’t forgotten that, either.

“Big time, the help was North Carolina,” Harvey said. “The support staff, the coaches, growing as a player and a teammate. Our goal at North Carolina was to win, and that carries over to now.

“Especially when you’re trying to go to Omaha, and I’ve gone to Omaha, the goal is to win. That definitely was a valuable lesson for me.”

Citi Field will host the All-Star Game in July. It’s conceivable, and perhaps likely, that Harvey will be there in his home Mets uniform. His rise, his resurgence, as rapid as it was rewarding. If it doesn’t happen this summer, then perhaps the next.

The Mets realize they have something special, a once-in-a-generation-type right arm.

“Everything that I see, all of the comparisons, etc., are probably pretty right on,” Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen said. “Sooner or later, they’re going to compare other people to him. That’s the ultimate compliment, I think. Someday, somebody says hey, that guy throws a lot like Harvey.”

Wright: 919-829-4643

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