For weeks, perhaps all season, starter Matt Harvey had wobbled while on the mound for the Angels.
He had run up his pitch count so early that manager Brad Ausmus pulled him out of games before he could finish five innings in all but three of his first eight starts. He had allowed so much traffic on the bases that his 1.4 walks-and-hits-per-inning-pitched rate led the starting rotation.
In a 5-2 win over the Kansas City Royals on Friday night at Angel Stadium, Harvey finally began to emerge from behind the shroud that had cloaked the beginning of his season.
Harvey pitched into the sixth inning for the first time since facing the Royals last month. He was charged with two runs after striking out six and scattering four hits over five-plus innings.
He credited his encouraging outing to improved curveball command, something he’s fumbled with since committing to use it more than he had since earlier in his career.
“I think the offspeed pitches were working pretty well,” said Harvey, whose ERA still hovers above 6.00. “I was able to keep them off balance with the curveball. It was probably the best it’s been all year, pretty consistent in the zone and was able to bounce a few when I needed to.
According to MLB’s Statcast system, Harvey has never yielded as hard contact as he has this season. Balls hit by opponents carried an average exit velocity of 91 mph across Harvey’s first eight starts.
The Royals mustered nothing of the sort Friday. Harvey limited contact on balls in play to 84 mph. He hadn’t performed that well since his first start of the season against the Oakland Athletics.
When he held these same Royals to two hits and one run over seven innings on April 28, they hit baseballs 10 mph harder.
“He did a really good job of locating his pitches,” Ausmus said. “Early on, he got some strikeouts on the location of his pitches. I thought it was a good outing.”
Harvey’s start wasn’t flawless. He issued four walks, two after getting ahead in the count. He flirted with disaster in the third. Whit Merrifield reached with two out on a bloop single to shallow right field that second baseman Tommy La Stella failed to catch. Rookie Nicky Lopez lined a single to put runners on the corners. Harvey induced an inning-ending ground ball on the next pitch.
Catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who had allowed 21 stolen bases and thrown out only five runners before Friday night, saved Harvey from a big inning in the fifth when he gunned down Merrifield on a strike-him-out, throw-him-out double play that ended a Royals threat.
Lucroy couldn’t work the same magic in the sixth. Adalberto Mondesi easily stole second base before Harvey departed, and swiped third base two batters later. Mondesi was called out on Lucroy’s throw by third base umpire Bill Welke but was deemed safe by inches upon review. Within minutes Mondesi and Alex Gordon scored on Ryan O’Hearn’s dribbler up the middle against reliever Justin Anderson to cut the Angels’ lead to 4-2.
“I don't really look at it as Lucroy struggling,” with the running game, Ausmus said. “He made a couple of good throws tonight and one of them, Merrifield. But it’s really incumbent on the pitcher to control the running game.”
As the Angels bullpen held firm the rest of the way, Harvey could watch from the bench without wallowing in frustration. For the first time all year, his second breaking ball was more effective than his slider. The curveball drew four swings and misses and received six called strikes.
As the Angels (21-23) wind through the rest of their schedule, they will need Harvey to get somewhere close to mastering that pitch. It could change the complexion of his arsenal, one that no longer boasts the 95-97 fastball he relied on during his all-star years with the New York Mets.