His team losers of seven straight between June 17 and June 24, New York Mets manager Terry Collins had a problem. With the Mets scoring only nine runs in those losses, it was obvious what that problem was: “We are not hitting, end of story that’s pretty much it. We’ve got to start hitting.”1 Missing most of their offensive firepower with injuries to second baseman Daniel Murphy, catcher Travis d’Arnaud, and “The Captain,” third baseman David Wright, the Mets needed someone to step up.
In stark contrast to their offense, the Mets pitching rotation in June 2015 was stellar. Matt Harvey was back from Tommy John surgery, flanked by 2014 Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom, Bartolo Colon, veteran Jonathan Niese, and flamethrower Noah Syndergaard. Their farm system devoid of major-league-ready hitters and the trade market weeks from maturing,2 Mets management elected to pile on more pitching. They called up their tall, left-handed power pitcher who was dominating at Triple-A Las Vegas: Steven Matz.3
Matz was the Mets’ top pick in the 2009 amateur draft, a pitcher-first baseman from Ward Melville High School in Stony Brook, Long Island, New York, who’d grown up a Mets fan.4 Noticed by a major-league scout at the age of 10,5 Matz developed into an outstanding hitter and standout pitcher. “When he was 12, I told his father that he’d pitch in the major leagues,” said former major leaguer Neal Heaton, Matz’s longtime personal instructor.6
In high school, Matz first drew notice for his hitting, including breaking up a no-hitter by Patchogue High School ace and future major-league teammate Marcus Stroman.7 Featuring a 90-plus mph fastball, Matz dominated his senior year, going 6-1 with a 0.26 ERA, allowing 14 hits in 54 innings with 74 strikeouts.8 At the plate he hit a robust .408. Matz’s marquee game was a 1-0 gem over Stroman in which he struck out 12 and allowed only one hit, in front of scouts and other representatives from all 30 major-league teams.9 Matz capped his season with the Carl Yastrzemski Award as the top high-school player in Suffolk County.10
Agreeing to an $895,000 signing bonus,11 the 18-year-old Matz visited the Mets’ Citi Field with his parents, where he met the media and participated in a pregame workout. Matz then headed off to the Mets’ Rookie League team in St. Lucie, Florida.12 He wouldn’t appear at Citi Field again for a very long time.
During instructional league play the following spring, Matz tore his ulnar collateral ligament and underwent Tommy John surgery in May 2010. He struggled with a difficult rehab and even considered a second surgery.13 Nearly three years after his last high-school game, Matz finally played in his first professional game in 2012. He rose through the Mets’ farm system, winning league championship clinchers for Class A Savannah and Double-A Binghamton in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and was named Mets 2014 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, the cream of a very talented crop.14 A 7-4 record and 2.19 ERA in 15 appearances at Triple-A Las Vegas in 2015 led to his promotion in June.
Matz debuted on June 28 in the back end of an unplanned “doubleheader.” The night before, the Mets and Reds were tied 1-1 after six innings when rain forced a suspension. Completion of that game was scheduled before the Sunday afternoon game Matz was pegged to start. The Mets won the suspended game in the 13th inning, giving them a modest three-game winning streak.15
The scheduled game got underway in front of Matz’s family and friends and a crowd of over 29,000. Opposing Matz was another rookie, right-hander Josh Smith, making his second major-league start.16 With Murphy, d’Arnaud, and Wright on the disabled list and the suspended game having gone so many innings, light-hitting backups dominated the Mets lineup. Eric Campbell was at third base, batting .171 with one hit in his last 22 at-bats. John Mayberry Jr., batting .182 and hitless in his last 15 at-bats, was the left fielder, with rookie Darrell Ceciliani in center. Collins also shuffled his middle infield for this game, benching second baseman Dilson Herrera, moving Wilmer Flores from shortstop to second base, and playing utilityman Ruben Tejada at shortstop.17 Behind the plate was third-string catcher Johnny Monell, who’d caught Matz in Triple A.
The first batter to face Matz was Brandon Phillips, sporting a 30-game road hitting streak against the Mets. Three-plus hours later than planned, Matz unleashed his first pitch – a 96-mph fastball that sailed to the backstop.18 Unfazed, Phillips drove Matz’s 3-and-1 fastball off the wall in left field for what appeared to be a long, loud single.19 Replay review, however, gave Phillips a home run, revealing that the ball struck the railing above the fence. “I was just trying to throw the ball down the middle those first couple of pitches,” Matz said after the game. “I was kind of jittery.”20 Matz had become the 75th major-league pitcher, and first Met, to allow a home run to his first big-league batter.21
Matz navigated his way out of the inning, allowing a walk to Jay Bruce before striking out Marlon Byrd to retire the side. His second inning of work was clean – three up, three down on 10 pitches, staying ahead in the count on each batter. Josh Smith took a third strike to end that inning.
The Mets’ second inning began with Ceciliani reaching on an error by Reds shortstop Eugenio Suarez. After Ceciliani advanced to third on two groundouts, Smith intentionally walked Campbell, batting eighth, to face Matz. Two pitches later, Matz drove a fastball over the head of speedster Billy Hamilton to the warning track in center for a double and two runs batted in. Matz had given himself the lead. “I barreled it up pretty good,” he said, “and when I saw it go over [Hamilton’s] glove, that was pretty cool.”22
After another one-two-three inning in the third, Matz was rudely greeted in the fourth by Todd Frazier’s home run to deep left field, his 25th of the season.23 Matz walked cleanup hitter Jay Bruce, but escaped further damage with a groundball double play from catcher Brayan Pena.
In the bottom of the fifth, Campbell led off with a four-pitch walk. Matz worked a full count, and with Campbell running, bounced a single through the hole vacated by a covering Suarez. Curtis Granderson doubled to right center, scoring Campbell, with Matz moving to third. Smith induced a popup before working around a walk, stranding Matz. The Mets now led, 3-2.
Matz mowed down the heart of the Reds lineup in the sixth, striking out Frazier this time around. Having thrown 109 pitches, Smith was replaced by right-hander Pedro Villareal for the bottom of the inning. Villareal got into trouble immediately, allowing singles to Mayberry and Monell, then hitting Campbell with the next pitch. The bases were loaded once again for Matz. He ambled up from the on-deck circle to a standing ovation, Mets fans urging him on.
Matz soon rewarded the faithful. He served a Villareal 2-and-2 breaking ball over a leaping second baseman Phillips, scoring Mayberry24 and Monell to give the Mets a 6-2 lead. The crowd went wild. Matz’s maternal grandfather, Bert Moller, a lifelong Mets fan, slapped himself in the head in amazement.25 Mets announcer Howie Rose gushed, “It’s Steven Matz’s world, we’re just happy to be a part of it.” Matz was now 3-for-3, with four runs batted in, stepping up in a way no one could have imagined.
The Reds offense stirred in the seventh with singles from Byrd and Pena, but Matz escaped, inducing a double-play grounder from Suarez and striking out Jason Bourgeois. Back on the mound for the eighth, Matz retired the first two batters, then walked Joey Votto.26 After 110 pitches, Matz’s job was done. Collins popped out of the dugout and the crowd roared one last time as Matz walked off.
The Mets tacked on another run in the bottom of the eighth, Granderson singling off Villareal to drive in Michael Cuddyer for a commanding 7-2 lead. Hansel Robles finished off the Reds in the ninth, giving Matz the victory. The Mets, despite their beleaguered offense, were now 29-11 at home (their best ever after 40 games) and only 2½ games behind first place Washington. Afterward, Matz laughingly said, “[Jacob] deGrom said [to me], ‘Now you are a big leaguer, you gave up a couple home runs, got a couple strikeouts, got a couple hits.’ I guess I did it all today.”27
Playing on the team he’d always rooted for, Steven Matz had made history. His four RBIs were the most by any pitcher in a major-league debut, and the most by any Mets player in a debut. Only five other pitchers in the past century had collected three or more hits in a debut.28 And Matz was the 11th major leaguer to get three hits and four RBIs in a debut.29
Matz made one more start before landing on the disabled list in mid-July. He rejoined the rotation in September and finished the season 4-0 with a 2.27 ERA. Matz started three games in the 2015 playoffs; Division Series Game Four opposite reigning NL MVP Clayton Kershaw, the Mets NLCS Game Four clincher against the Cubs and World Series Game Four against the Kansas City Royals. Grandpa Bert was very, very proud.
In addition to the Sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites for pertinent material and the box scores noted below.
1 Kristie Ackert, “Meet the Mets, Beat the Mets,” New York Daily News, June 25, 2015: 52.
2 The Mets reaped an offensive bonanza in the week leading up to July 31 trade deadline, acquiring accomplished hitters Kelly Johnson, Juan Uribe, and Yoenis Cespedes. Those additions, along with the return of Murphy, d’Arnaud, and Wright, turbocharged the Mets offense in the last two months of the season, ushering them to the National East crown and ultimately the 2015 World Series.
3 At the time he was called up, the 6-foot-3 Matz led the Pacific Coast League in ERA (2.14) and strikeouts (94), and was tied for the lead in wins (7). “Reno Aces Insiders,” Reno (Nevada) Gazette-Journal, June 26, 2015: D2.
4 Matz was selected in the second round, the 72nd overall selection. The Mets did not have a first-round selection in the 2009 draft, losing that pick as compensation for signing free-agent closer Francisco Rodriguez. Matz was the Mets. first top pick from a New York City metro area school since Brooklyn native Lee Mazzilli in 1973.
5 When Matz was 10 years old, Expos scout Larry Izzo handed Matz’s father, Ron, his business card and asked that he “keep in touch.” Bob Herzog, “LI Teen Signs with Mets.,” Newsday (Nassau Edition), August 19,2009: 6.
6 Heaton was Matz’s personal instructor for seven years before Matz was drafted. Herzog, “LI Teen Signs with Mets.”
7 Matz and Stroman were close friends, having been roommates when they played in the Area Code games the previous summer. Matz also noted that Stroman hit his first home run off Matz. Newsday (Suffolk Edition), April 25, 2008: 56; Adam Ronis, “Matz Bests Buddy Stroman,” Newsday (Nassau Edition), April 17, 2009: 62.
8 Adam Ronis, “Eye on the Locals,” Newsday (Nassau Edition), June 7, 2009: 88.
9 Bob Herzog, “Like Entertainers, They Give Crowd a Good Show,” Newsday (Nassau Edition), April 17, 2009: 62.
10 Corey McLaughlin, “Quite a Month for Matz,” Newsday (Nassau Edition), June 17, 2009: 52.
11 According to Matz’s agent, Rob Martin of ICON Sports, three teams ahead of the Mets in the draft had called to say they’d draft Matz if he’d accept a bonus close to the sub-$600,000 slot value for a late second-round draft selection. Martin said no to each suitor in turn, knowing that the Mets had told him that they’d pay above slot should Matz be available at the 72nd pick. The Mets and Matz were $200,000 apart in negotiations until Met GM Omar Minaya and scouting director Rudy Terrassas were able to persuade Martin and Mets ownership to compromise enough to reach a deal at $895,000. The deal was struck six minutes before the midnight August 18 signing deadline. John Harper, “An Omar Save,” New York Daily News, June 30, 2015: 38.
12Herzog, “LI Teen Signs with Mets”; Kimberely Martin, “Matz Has a Day to Remember,” Newsday (Nassau Edition), August 20, 2009: 60.
13 “Mets Problematic Tommy John History,” http://metsdaddy.com/2020/03/mets-problematic-tommy-john-history/.
14 Baseball America rated the Mets farm system as number one in winning percentage for the 2014 season. Matz earned the award over future major-league stars Noah Syndergaard and Michael Fulmer. Lynn Worthy, “Learning to Win,” Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin, September 16, 2014: C1-2C.
15 The Mets began their streak on the strength of a deGrom masterpiece in Milwaukee, following a team meeting after their seventh straight loss the night before. The Mets scratched out two runs, including deGrom scoring after he’d singled to start a seventh-inning rally. deGrom shut out the Brewers over eight innings, allowing four hits with seven strikeouts and no walks. Six years later, Collins half-jokingly confessed that during his tenure with the Mets he was calculating in deciding when to hold a team meeting – and that he’d often call a team meeting the night before deGrom started so that he looked brilliant. https://sports.yahoo.com/time-ejected-time-hold-team-231508533.html.
16 Smith had been called up in April but never appeared in a game before being sent back down to Triple-A Louisville. Smith debuted against Pittsburgh on June 23, going three innings and allowing six walks and four earned runs. Batting eighth, in front of rookie speedster Billy Hamilton, Smith singled in his first major-league at-bat. On June 28 Smith was filling in for Reds ace Johnny Cueto, whose start was being skipped for the second time in a month after an MRI revealed he had inflammation in his right elbow following a bout of stiffness. Chris Schubert, “Johnny Cueto Injury: MRI Reveals No Tear in Right Elbow,” May 27, 2015. https://www.mlbdailydish.com/2015/5/27/8666367/johnny-cueto-injury-mri-reveals-no-tear-in-right-elbow.
17 This was Flores’ first game of the season at second base. Flores would later replace Tejada as the Mets’ starting shortstop during their 2015 playoff run – after Chase Utley’s infamous slide broke Tejada’s leg in Game Two of their Division Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
18 Howie Rumberg, “Matz Has Record Day in Debut, Mets Beat Reds 7-2,” June 28, 2015. https://www.lohud.com/story/sports/mlb/mets/2015/06/28/steven-matz-mets-debut/29442055/.
19 Phillips’ hitting streak in Mets ballparks began in his first game as a Red at Shea Stadium in 2006 and reached 35, ending with Phillips in an Atlanta Braves uniform at Citi Field in April 2017. It was the longest road hitting streak against one team since Ducky Medwick in 1933. Ben Walker, “Colon Sharp at Old Home as Braves Top Mets in 12,” Macon Telegraph, April 7, 2017: B3.
20 Bill Madden, “Matz Is a Hit Already,” New York Daily News, June 29, 2015: 44-45.
22 Madden, “Matz Is a Hit Already.”
23 With this home run, Frazier moved into second place in home runs in the National League. But he was running second to the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter in voting for the starting NL third baseman in the coming All-Star game at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. On June 28 the Sunday edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer began a #votefrazier campaign to drum up more online votes for Frazier. Frazier leapfrogged Carpenter and was voted in as a starter. Frazier thrilled the hometown fans by winning the 2015 Home Run Derby, defeating Joc Pederson, 15-14, in the final round.
24 Mayberry went 3-for-29 over the next four weeks and was released in late July to make room for the team’s acquisitions around the trade deadline. He never made it back to the major leagues.
25 Moller, who was shown rooting his grandson on during the SNY TV broadcast of Steven’s debut, was a Mets fan since their inception in 1962. https://www.facebook.com/Mets/videos/steven-matzs-grandfather-has-been-a-mets-fan-since-day-one/1343361432489553/.
27 Kristie Ackert, “Break Up the Matz,” New York Daily News, June 29, 2015: 42-43.