MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at New York Mets

The Steven Matz Conundrum

On Monday, the Mets shut down Steven Matz. He hadn’t reached an arbitrary innings limit, nor was he injured, Terry Collins insisted.

“This is not an injury, this is not an injury,” Collins told reporters before the Diamondbacks series began. “It’s just an issue of he needs to shut it down for a little while…If he had to, he could pitch tomorrow. We’re going to probably put him on the DL.”

Hours later, the official diagnosis was irritation in the ulnar nerve of his left elbow and the Long Island lefty was headed off for season-ending surgery, the same operation that Jacob deGrom had last September.

The injury isn’t the problem. Injuries happen. They happen to pitchers, they happen to the Mets, they happen to Mets pitchers. Injuries happen.

The problem is how the team handled the injury. The problem, in fact, is always how the team handles the injury.

First Collins shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t know. Then the organization, as it is wont to do, started leaking: multiple pain-killing injections, elbow the size of a grapefruit, skipped bullpen sessions. Between that, the lefty threw 66.2 innings in 13 games to the tune of a 6.08 ERA and a 5.03 FIP. Matz was hurt. Most fans knew he was hurt. Maybe the team knew he was hurt too. But they never acknowledged it, never admitted it, never did anything about it.

They kept letting him pitch.

A source told Newsday that the organization wanted Matz to overcome the “mental hurdle” of pitching through pain. Because that’s what men do, of course, men who throw thousands of balls for millions of dollars over the course of a season. They pitch through pain, because if not, they are not men. Only in sports are men admired for pretending they don’t hurt; pain, simply, is weakness. Men throw 200 innings and they play 162 games and they play through pain, or they are not men at all.

That mentality, which appears to spread from the SNY booth to the front office, has seen a once-heralded rotation, and a season, collapse. Injuries happen. But in the Mets organization, an injury is never that simple.

It doesn’t matter that Matz isn’t going to pitch the last two months of the season. In fact, Tommy Milone getting his starts almost certainly ensures the Mets a higher draft spot. But next year matters, and Matz is supposed to be part of that. Rather than shut down the promising southpaw when his elbow swelled to the size of a grapefruit the first time (when he should have been shut down), or even the second or third or fourth, the Mets let him keep going. Every five days, they threw him to the wolves with an injury that had caused discomfort since spring training. They risked further injury to a bright young star who has already lost so much time. This isn’t the first time the Mets have mishandled an injury and it certainly won’t be the last. It won’t be the worst either, probably. But one day, it will be. One day, the team’s embarrassing treatment of injuries will ruin a career, not of the doctors or medical staff, but of the player who had the misfortune to get hurt in Flushing.

Photo credit: Wendell Cruz – USA Today Sports

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