Sports of The Times: Orange Towels Wave for Matt Harvey, but Where’s the Yellow Caution Light?

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The Mets’ Matt Harvey overcame the cold, a line drive off his pitching arm and a dangerous Cubs lineup in Game 1 of the N.L.C.S.

Credit
Jason Szenes for The New York Times

In the seventh inning of a frigid October evening, Matt Harvey appeared a man struggling down his chosen street. The Mets ace had walked a Chicago Cubs batter; another one had singled off his glove. In frustration, Harvey turned on his knee and slapped the dirt on the pitching mound.

Javier Baez, a promising power-hitting shortstop, walked to the plate. The Mets’ 3-1 lead in the first game of the National League Championship Series looked a frail reed. Whap. Harvey’s first strike to Baez arrived at 94 miles per hour. The second and the third pitches came in a millisecond faster, 95 m.p.h. Baez took a seat. Pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella settled in the batter’s box, although not for long. Harvey finished off that duel by laying down an 88 mile-per-hour changeup for a third strike.

The Citi Field crowd, convulsive in meditative moments on Saturday night, torqued toward insanity. For the past month, the dominant version of Harvey had gone AWOL. He was replaced by a fellow who pulled at his shirt and shook his arms and twisted his back, as though attempting a mid-game chiropractic adjustment. That Harvey had sometimes struggled just to survive games.

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Not Saturday night. This Harvey was a Johan Santana-like master of craft. Curveballs, sliders, changeups, all were stirred and mixed and accented with his fastball. He gave up just four hits and two runs, and struck out nine.

Joe Maddon, the Cubs’ bike-riding Zen joy of a manager, walked into the interview room afterward looking like an elf, a blue woolen hat atop his white hair. As playoff losses go, this was uncomplicated.

“We were fine, absolutely fine; I just think that he was absolutely on top of his game tonight,” he said of Harvey. “His stuff is always good, but the command was outrageous tonight.”

Madden fleshed out the details: “The changeup was outstanding, curve ball was there.”

This was the October hero narrative. Harvey departed in the eighth inning to howls of joy and waving of towels, and to slaps and hugs from teammates. But worrisome facts remain for a pitcher in his first year back from serious elbow surgery.

With each October start, Harvey sails further into unknown seas. Six weeks ago, his agent, Scott Boras, raised reasonable questions of how much longer Harvey could safely pitch this year without putting at risk his recovery. He and Mets management batted back and forth the proper goal of innings pitched: 165, 180.

Fans and press were unforgiving. If you’re so tough, they said to Harvey, carry your team like the ace you claim to be. Harvey grew visibly uncomfortable, retreating into third-person, out-of-body responses that left everyone confused.

After a while, he just asked his manager to give him the ball.

On Saturday night, Harvey, 26, broke through the 200-inning mark for the year. If the Mets go the World Series, Harvey could log 215 innings, far more than he has pitched in any season. Some argue that innings are an imprecise measurement of a pitcher’s health, and advise focusing on pitches. By that standard, Harvey could end up among the 25 pitchers with the heaviest workload in the major leagues.

Mets Manager Terry Collins acknowledged this challenge in talking with beat reporters before the game. He had seen Harvey struggle. He did not rule out that his gas gauge dial might be sitting on empty.

“The scenario is, he pitches tonight and he’s flat out of gas,” Collins said as he looked ahead to Saturday’s start. “I mean, he’s pitched more than he’s ever pitched in his whole life.”

“You have a dead-arm stage, where you just don’t have that life left,” he added. “If it is, we’ve got to go to somebody else.”

Those cautionary words aside, the mood before the game was celebratory, as if these two young teams were on holiday in the lengthening fall shadows. Players ran around grinning; some ventured across the DMZ of the batting cage to exchange handshakes with their opponents. So the Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber, the fireplug-shaped, power-hitting outfielder and catcher, exchanged hugs with Michael Conforto, the Mets’ hoped-for wunderkind outfielder.

This series plays as the jolting young power hitters of Chicago against the gunslinger arms of the Mets. That foundation narrative is flawed, however. Cubs pitchers recorded over 90 strikeouts more than Mets pitchers did in the regular season and compiled a marginally better earned run average and WHIP.

And Mets hitters hit six more homers than Cubs hitters.

Collins noted that after vanquishing the Los Angeles Dodgers’ aces, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, in the division round, the Mets faced a no-less-onerous task in taking on Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta .

What’s your mentality?, a reporter asked the manager. Collins’s eyes danced. “The mentality is, oh” – insert here a word that The New York Times will not allow me to type – “we’ve got to do it again.”

Which they did. The Mets continued to ride the back of Daniel Murphy, a nice professional hitter who is having a hallucination of an October, having now hit home runs off Kershaw and Greinke, and another on Saturday night off Lester.

Arrieta might do well to pitch carefully to Murphy in Game 2 on Sunday.

The Cubs’ offense was a dormant beast Saturday, save for the rookie Schwarber, who batted against a visibly tiring Harvey in the eighth inning. The fireplug rotated his wide hips and got the bat head out and Harvey’s pitch reversed course and took flight for downtown Flushing.

“That hasn’t landed yet,” Harvey warned afterward.

Smiles ruled the postgame news conference. Murphy, so often an intense character, was loose and funny. Harvey remained more elusive; his baseball cap rested low over his head, shadowing his eyes. His answers were careful. You wondered not for the first time if he has done himself any favors by embracing that Dark Knight persona.

He took pains to make clear that he welcomed the mounting challenges of October.

“I wanted to go out there,” he said. “I wanted it bad.”

You hope that his glory lust, and that of the Mets and those of us who root for a magical run, do not serve him badly.

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