Inside the Phillies: Mets' Harvey a sign of things to come in NL East

Matt Harvey is the brightest new pitching star among Phils divisional foes. Getty
Matt Harvey is the brightest new pitching star among Phils divisional foes. Getty
Posted: July 23, 2013

NEW YORK - The seventh inning Sunday started and ended with a standing ovation at Citi Field. Dwight Gooden, seated in a suite directly behind home plate, waved to the Mets fans on his bobblehead day. They stood to salute a man whose name often is invoked in the same sentence as 24-year-old pitcher Matt Harvey.

When Harvey threw his 112th pitch, a 96-m.p.h. fastball that John Mayberry Jr. skied to center, everyone rose again. The noise was loudest now. Five days earlier, Harvey captured a national audience's attention in this ballpark. This was more satisfying.

These are the days when it is impossible not to wonder whether the National League East has discarded the Phillies after years and years of dominance. The Braves, Nationals, Marlins, and Mets all bided time by restocking, a process that bore results in 2012.

The Phillies have played 261 games since the start of last season, and they are one game under .500. They convincingly won Friday to open the second half and buoyed optimism. They touted Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee this weekend against two twentysomethings.

"When you have those two guys pitching, I always think we are going to win," Charlie Manuel said. The manager is right; the Phillies' best shot at contending beyond 2013 - no matter how faint - is with both of those pitchers in the rotation. Kyle Kendrick, a rebuilt Roy Halladay, and (eventually) Jesse Biddle are not enough behind Hamels. The NL East is a quagmire, but it is not without talent, especially in the form of young pitching.

The idea of facing Harvey five times a season for at least the next five years is daunting.

"It's definitely the best we've seen," Manuel said after Harvey's seven innings in a 5-0 Mets victory. "He has unbelievable stuff," said Lee, who allowed three home runs. "His future is bright," Michael Young said.

Harvey generated an astounding 22 swings and misses on his 112 pitches. His fastball averaged 98 m.p.h. Sunday. He threw 90-m.p.h. change-ups and 88-m.p.h. curveballs. How does one hit a 93-m.p.h. slider?

"You don't," Young said. "You take it."

Harvey is the finest young pitcher in this division, maybe all of baseball. He is just the tip. All four of the Phillies' National League East rivals entered Sunday with better starting staff ERAs. And all five of the division's teams rank in the top half in baseball.

New York will build around Harvey and Zack Wheeler, a raw talent at 23. They invested in 26-year-old Jonathon Niese, who has proved his value. Their next power arm is Noah Syndergaard, 20 years old and at double A. Atlanta has five starters - Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Brandon Beachy, Alex Wood - each 27 or younger.

Miami boasts 20-year-old all-star Jose Fernandez. Jacob Turner, 22, has a 2.44 ERA in nine starts this season. Nate Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez throw hard and are 23 years old. Washington built its team around Stephen Strasburg. He turned 25 on Saturday. Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez are 27. They are top-of-the-rotation mainstays.

Projecting pitching is an exercise in futility. It is why pitching prospects are so often just that. For every Harvey, there are 50 failed promising arms. That is why dealing Lee for a bounty of prospects is too risky. Here is a known commodity, while expensive, who can win every fifth day. Never before have prospects been so overvalued in this game. What would happen if Ruben Amaro Jr. were to make a similar Lee trade to the one that produced Phillippe Aumont, J.C. Ramirez, and Tyson Gillies?

This ballpark displayed the fragility of greatness Sunday. There was Gooden, as dominant as anyone in his early 20s, finally accepted after drugs derailed his career. Long before the game started, Halladay found sanctuary with a bullpen session for the first time since shoulder surgery. Then Harvey fired with precision for seven innings.

"I've only had 30 starts," Harvey said, "so I have a long way to go, hopefully."

"I thought he was going to strike out 15 guys today the way he looked in the first," Mets manager Terry Collins said. Harvey settled for 10, and the Phillies marveled.


Contact Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com. Follow @magelb on Twitter.

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