EVER since the New York Mets selected Steven Matz out of Ward Melville High School on Long Island in the second round of the 2009 draft, his career has been defined by injuries. His latest setback, which is costing him the final month and a half of this season, helps define the current state of the Mets.
A decision to play with some discomfort. A medical explanation that took awhile to emerge. These are the types of storylines that have attached themselves to the Mets in 2017, and now Matz’s narrative has taken its place among them.
As the Mets proceed through the dreary final weeks of the schedule, Matz is back home. But in some ways, he is also back where he began as a Met, with an issue in his left elbow, the one he pitches with.
It was that elbow on which he underwent Tommy John surgery not long after the Mets drafted him; it led to a two-year recovery.
That operation set a tone for his career. For when Matz finally made it to the major leagues, in 2015, he quickly landed on the disabled list for two months with a latissimus tear. In 2016 a shoulder injury and surgery to remove a bone spur from his left elbow claimed the final month and a half of his season.
So after Matz missed the first two months of the 2017 season with what the Mets described as elbow inflammation, it seemed like more of the same. Still, the Mets did not express concern that there was something seriously wrong with his arm. Matz said team doctors told him the inflammation might have been a side effect from the bone spur surgery the previous fall, and they prescribed rest and platelet-rich plasma injections.
Matz then returned to the rotation in early-June and pitched fairly well in his first five starts. But he then began to pitch less effectively, his earned run average ballooned, and by the second half of August, the Mets’ medical staff decided to take another look. This time, on August 21, they concluded that he had ulnar nerve irritation in his elbow.
Two days later, Matz underwent surgery to reposition the nerve—the same operation Jacob deGrom underwent last fall and from which he has made a successful comeback this season.
Matz said in a recent interview that he was glad the team’s medical staff had “figured out this issue,” and took heart in the notion that he, like deGrom, would recover well.
STILL, questions linger, particularly in a lost season in which so much has gone wrong for the Mets on the injury front. Isn’t it reasonable to think the ulnar nerve issue was bothering Matz for some time? If so, could the problem have been detected sooner? Should Matz have been pitching at all from June to August, if, as he later admitted, he was dealing with discomfort off and on that began in spring training?
These are, of course, the kinds of questions the Mets have been confronted with as other players, like Noah Syndergaard and Yoenis Cespedes, ended up with their seasons derailed. And the questions are never easily answered.
Sandy Alderson, the Mets’ general manager, declined to talk about the way Matz’s case unfolded. But what is known is that only after it was announced that he would undergo surgery for the ulnar nerve problem was it revealed that he had been skipping numerous bullpen sessions between starts this season. And that he was limiting the use of a secondary pitch, a slider, in hopes of lessening the strain on his troublesome elbow.
But if that was the case, was he healthy enough to pitch in the first place?
“Ultimately, it was my decision,” Matz said recently in an interview when asked about the 13 starts he made this season before he was shut down. “I wanted to go out there and pitch because I’m so sick of being on the DL. And I did everything I could.”
MATZ’S frequent injuries have frustrated some within the Mets’ organization, something Matz is no doubt aware of. He tries to keep himself in top physical shape and seems careful about what he puts in his body.
For instance, when his bone spur was discovered early last season, he resisted taking anti-inflammatory medicine. And this season, Matz said he received only “a couple” of shots of the anti-inflammatory drug Toradol for his balky elbow.
“Some guys take it more,” he said. “It definitely helps.”
Matz said that when he did pitch this season he felt more discomfort between starts than when on the mound, when adrenaline kicked in. His average fastball velocity was 93.1 mph, similar to last year’s average of 93.6.
As Matz’s pitching deteriorated this summer, he tried to push through the pain, in part because the diagnosis he received in spring training concluded that there was no structural damage to his elbow.
“In my mind,” he said, “I’m like: ‘The MRI is clean, so this is something I’m going to have to deal with. I either have an arthritic elbow or whatever it is, but I’m going to have to get past it.’”
LAST season, after the Mets assured him he would not do additional damage to his elbow by pitching through the bone spur, surgery was pushed off until a shoulder injury short-circuited his season.
This time around, with his elbow barking, he took the same approach. He said his elbow felt better on some days than on others. He could extend his elbow as far as it could go, but he said it bothered him a “little bit” to twist his arm properly, which was perhaps affecting the movement and location of his pitches.
Even that admission, during the interview, took a bit of prodding. Like most players, Matz is competitive and had convinced himself that discomfort was inevitable as a pitcher.
“I definitely respect him for trying,” deGrom said. “You’re not going to feel good every time you go out there—it’s a lot of games and a lot of pitches—even when there is nothing wrong.”
“We knew all along that it was irritating and he was unable to do his bullpens most of the time,” Dan Warthen, the Mets’ pitching coach, said. “He wanted to pitch through it. Doctors kept saying that physically it was OK and there was nothing wrong in there; it was just an irritation. We weren’t going to shut him down unless he wanted to.”
Matz, meanwhile, denied that he received any pressure from the Mets to stay on the mound this season.
“I didn’t feel any pressure from the team,” he said. “Did I feel pressure from myself? Yeah. I want to be out there competing and pitching.”
BUT after he allowed six earned runs over 3 1/3 innings against the New York Yankees on Aug. 17, Matz said that he decided it was time to see a doctor again. He had developed a hunch that he might be dealing with the same problem—the ulnar nerve—that had afflicted deGrom and Mets reliever Erik Goeddel.
In this instance, Matz received a computed tomography examination that involved numbing the nerve with an anesthetic. Once that happened, he said, the pain was almost instantly gone.
One reason Matz thinks his ulnar nerve issue was not detected sooner, assuming it could have been, was that he was not experiencing telltale symptoms.
“The doctor said the symptoms I was getting were nontypical for nerve problems,” Matz said. “I had no tingling or numbness.”
In deGrom’s case, his ulnar nerve irritation started as tingling in his fingers before it became sharp pain. DeGrom’s performance tailed off near the end of his 2016 season, just before he had the surgery.
NOW the Mets can only hope Matz recovers as well from this surgery as deGrom did, because their pitching staff, which has one of the worst earned run averages in baseball, is in serious need of rehabilitation.
Noah Syndergaard has yet to return from his early-season lat tear. Matt Harvey’s return from his latest injury setback has been marked by ugly outings that have been demoralizing for both him and the team. Zack Wheeler last pitched in July.
And then there is Matz, with his repositioned ulnar nerve. Maybe he can help in 2018, after he first files away 2017 as a season to forget.