JUPITER, Fla. — Steven Matz’s afternoon was headed toward chaos and a wasted opportunity to show he belongs in the Mets rotation, when suddenly he found his confidence Wednesday.
Maybe it was the realization a Marlins lineup with less juice than a wilted grapefruit stood as the resistance. Matz got his act together over the final 11 batters he faced and resembled a respectable pitcher in the Mets’ 5-1 exhibition loss at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium.
The footnote was a messy first inning in which Matz allowed two hits and two walks — needing 34 pitches — in surrendering his only two runs. Matz departed after 4 ¹/₃ innings in which he allowed three hits, three walks and struck out five.
“I just felt like I was trying to find it in the first inning instead of just letting it go and trusting my stuff,” Matz said. “I was trying to be too fine.”
It was a second straight acceptable start for Matz after two brutal outings to begin the exhibition season. This one came a day after Zack Wheeler possibly lost his edge in the battle for the final rotation spot by allowing five earned runs on seven hits and two walks over three innings against the Nationals.
Matz and Wheeler have two starts remaining in the Grapefruit League, but manager Mickey Callaway indicated a decision on the final spot could be reached before the end of camp. The loser will either begin the season in the bullpen or at Triple-A Las Vegas.
Asked to handicap the battle, Callaway pleaded the fifth.
“I try not to look at it too much right now,” he said. “We are all going to have a decision to make when we all sit down. I just like to watch them compete every day and make sure they are doing their work the right way at this point.”
Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom have officially been named to the rotation to begin the season, with Matt Harvey and Jason Vargas locks for the next two spots. In addition to Wheeler and Matz, the Mets also have Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman as potential starters, but both could begin the season in the bullpen or at Las Vegas.
Matz, who owns a 10.80 ERA this spring skewed by his two awful appearances, said he’s trying to avoid considering the rotation battle.
“It’s in the back of my mind, but I have to just keep working. Even if I had a guaranteed spot in the rotation it wouldn’t change how I worked,” Matz said.
“I am going to try to be the best pitcher I can and if it’s good enough to help the team win, then that is great.”Though it’s important to find the right answer, Callaway doesn’t want to get too wrapped up in who begins the season in the rotation.
“It’s going to be kind of a fluid situation anyway once you get into the season,” Callaway said. “We are not going to use [only] five starters, so it really doesn’t matter who breaks camp. In my experience the guy who breaks camp usually doesn’t stay in the big leagues as long as the guy who doesn’t, so I am not too concerned about naming these guys at a certain time. We just want to see these guys pitch.”
Matz, who is returning from surgery to relocate the ulnar nerve in his left elbow, said he is sometimes guilty of trying too hard.
“You put the work in and then you go out there and want to do more instead of just trusting in your preparation and what you have done,” Matz said. “I have been battling that my whole career. Kind of calming myself down and attacking hitters instead of trying to be too perfect.”