Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 18, 2013

Harvey Early And Mo Late Make It New York’s Night

More than 45,000 fans packed the stands at Citi Field on Tuesday evening for the 84th All-Star Game. While the Great Game’s annual Midsummer Classic always draws people from far and wide, most of those in attendance were likely from greater Gotham; and as such spend the long days of the regular season rooting for either Citi Field’s full-time residents or their American League counterparts one borough to the north. While much can change over the next ten weeks, if postseason play began today it would do so without either the Mets or the Yankees. But in a season in which fans of both squads have had little reason to cheer, the All-Star game provided moments that will long be remembered warmly by both sets of New York partisans.

A full house, or even anything approaching it, has been a rare event since the Mets new home opened in 2009. That’s due in no small part to the fact that the product on the field has often times been hard to watch. They’ve averaged just 75 wins a year since moving from Shea Stadium, with four consecutive 4th place finishes in the NL East. At this year’s break they are sitting in their customary place in the standings, already nine games under .500. But at least on every fifth day, when Matt Harvey has taken the mound, Mets fans have been able to glimpse a brighter future.

Until Johan Santana finally turned the trick last season the Mets had gone through their entire history without a no-hitter. But now every time the tall 24-year old Harvey takes the mound a no-no seems feasible. Through the first half his WHIP was a miserly 0.92. He held opposing hitters to a .196 average while recording 147 strikeouts in 130 innings. Those numbers rank 2nd, 4th, and 3rd among qualifying pitchers in both leagues. His 7-2 record could easily have been even better had the Mets given him more run support. All that was good enough for NL Manager Bruce Bochy to tab Harvey as the senior circuit’s starting pitcher Tuesday night, making the first-time All-Star just the sixth pitcher to start the game on his home field and the first to do so since Roger Clemens at Houston in 2004.

No doubt amped up by the occasion, Harvey put his first 97 mile per hour fastball over the plate and the Angels’ Mike Trout promptly doubled to right. His third pitch hit Robinson Cano just above the right knee, putting two runners on and sending a wave of concern through Yankee fans. But instead of being overwhelmed by the moment Harvey rose to it. The AL’s third batter was Miguel Cabrera, whose numbers for average, RBIs and homers are all better than the stats that made him the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years last season. Mixing pitch selection, speeds, and location, Harvey struck out the Tigers’ star on five pitches. He got two quick strikes on home run leader Chris Davis before inducing an easy fly ball to Bryce Harper in center field. Then he ended the inning by sending Toronto’s Jose Bautista down swinging.

Harvey was just as impressive in the second inning. He caught the corner of the plate with a slow curve for strike one on David Ortiz, then fooled Big Papi with a changeup for a swinging strike two. Ahead in the count against the Red Sox’ designated hitter, Harvey got another fly ball to Harper for the first out. Then he won a classic duel against Baltimore’s Adam Jones. Once again Harvey went ahead in the count, this time 1-2. Jones then battled back, fouling off four pitches while gradually working the count full. But in the end he was no match for a 98 mile per hour four-seam fastball, as Harvey recorded his third strikeout. The young Mets ace then ended his evening by getting Joe Mauer to line to Carlos Gonzalez in left field.

It was the kind of performance that Mets fans have come to expect from their present and future star. Half of Harvey’s six outs were strikeouts. He was never behind in the count to two of the three other batters he retired. Of his 32 pitches, 22 were strikes. But most impressive was Harvey’s command of a range of pitches. His curves and sliders were thrown in the mid-80s. That made his fastballs, ten of which were clocked at 97 miles per hour or higher, all the more devastating. It may have been Harvey’s first time as an All-Star, but one has to believe it won’t be his last.

More than two hours after Matt Harvey completed his work, the door to the visitor’s bullpen swung open and the last player who will ever wear uniform number 42 stepped through it. Mariano Rivera paused on the warning track for a moment, as he always does, before beginning the long jog to the pitcher’s mound. The crowd came to its feet and the cheers rained down, and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blared into the Queens night, as it has so many times over the years in the Bronx. In the midst of his final season before retirement and in his 13th All-Star Game, Rivera was picked by AL Manager Jim Leyland to pitch the 8th inning. While the greatest closer of all time would normally work the final frame, in a tight 3-0 ballgame Leyland didn’t want to risk the National League rallying for the lead in the 8th against another pitcher, thus possibly keeping Rivera out of the contest if there was no bottom of the 9th.

In the most emotional moment of the night, Rivera arrived at the Citi Field mound to find that he was the only player on the field. His American League teammates were lined up in front of their dugout, joining in the applause and cheers. An obviously moved Rivera doffed his cap repeatedly to the crowd. Finally catcher Salvador Perez came out and Rivera began his warm-ups. Only then did the AL position players take the field, having allowed Rivera to stand alone on the diamond, basking in the adulation of a packed stadium saluting a storied career.

Rivera then turned in the kind of performance that his team’s fans have relied on for years. Sixteen pitches, sixteen cutters. None slower than 89 nor faster than 91. Logic says that batters should feast on that predictability. But Jim Thome once called Rivera’s cutter “the single best pitch ever in the game.” Tuesday night the fact that the next three National League batters all knew what was coming gave them no advantage. On a 1-2 count Jean Segura grounded out, second to first. On a 2-2 count pinch hitter Alan Craig sent a line drive out to left fielder Alex Gordon. Finally on another 2-2 count Carlos Gomez sent a ground ball right to shortstop Jhonny Peralta, and Mariano Rivera’s final All-Star appearance ended as if scripted, three up and three down. One final moment of recognition came when he was named the game’s MVP. While that had the air of a lifetime achievement award about it, it’s also true that given a low-scoring, 3-0 contest in which no batter got multiple hits, Rivera was as deserving as anyone.

The regular season resumes on Friday. The Mets have been playing somewhat better of late, but they are 11 games back in the NL East and 10 games out of a Wild Card slot. Until management adds some offense, Matt Harvey’s individual success will remain a symbol of the potential that lies ahead for the team as a whole. The old and badly bruised Yankees are 3 back in the Wild Card race and clinging to contact with Boston in the AL East. Of their next 18 games, 15 will be on the road. Mariano Rivera may well be denied the opportunity to add to his record 42 postseason saves, more than twice as many as any other pitcher. But if the Great Game should pass Gotham by come October, fans of the Mets and Yankees will still have the memory of one shining July night, when two of their heroes were the greatest All-Stars of all at Citi Field.

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