Tonight, Matt Harvey will toe the rubber at Citi Field for what is probably the most important start of his baseball career. It will certainly be the most-watched start of his baseball career, as he starts for the National League in the major league baseball All-Star Game.
But it will not be his best start. That happened in front of exactly 5,391 individuals. It was not on television. Rather than being on Broadway, it was in Clemson.
And it was electric.
Carolina baseball fans have been fortunate to watch some incredible players over the last decade. We've seen Dustin Ackley hit, Robert Woodard paint the corners, Alex White overpower batters and Tim Federowicz control a game from behind the plate.
The beauty of baseball is so often that one player can't dominate any one game. A team might clearly have the best player on the field...and still lose by double-digit runs. Harvey was part of a 2008 Carolina team that was absolutely stacked--and still lost to a Fresno State team that had been a four seed in their regional. Baseball happens.
On April 23, 2010, Harvey made sure it wouldn't happen. On that night, he fired a complete game against Clemson. His numbers are not especially noteworthy, especially given the standard he's set for the Mets (he's third in the major leagues in strikeouts with 147, fourth in the majors in batting average against at .196 and second in WHIP at 0.92).
At Clemson, he allowed six hits, gave up three earned runs and walked one. Fifteen of the 27 Tiger outs were recorded by strikeout, but even that isn't what was most memorable about that night.
No, what sticks out about that game is that it was one of the very rare college baseball games when one individual completely determined the outcome of the game. Harvey decided, on his own, that his team needed a victory. And then he went out and got it for them.
"We needed a win," he said after the game, "and I wanted to make it my responsibility to do that for my team."
It's one thing to have that level of maturity. It's quite another to have the talent to do it. Baseball is very, very hard. Every year, Carolina brings in a new class of freshmen who are accustomed to dominating at their previous level, and then they discover that everyone else in college is as good as they are.
It can be a difficult adjustment. Some players stop being able to dominate in Little League. Some can no longer do it in high school. A handful can still do it in college.
And one--only one--will start the major league All-Star Game tonight at Citi Field.
This would be a nice place to tell you that Harvey didn't expect all this. That would not be true, because Harvey probably did expect at least some form of this. He has never lacked for two things: overpowering stuff and overwhelming confidence.
Even when he struggled--which he did often in his first two seasons at Carolina--you got the impression he firmly believed the baseball was faulty, and that no other explanation could be possible. But where some would be unable to have that level of confidence without crossing over into cockiness, Harvey came across as simply incredibly confident in his own ability. It wasn't personal. He just thought--knew, really--he was good. And if he didn't show it in one particular outing, he'd just work a little harder, and show you the next time.
"It's hard for us as coaches sometimes to categorize the stature of Matt's success or make sense of his 'stardom' because he is such a humble kid who has always been such a great example," says Tar Heel assistant coach Scott Jackson. "The way Matt has treated my family, our players and me personally, he will always be that happy-go-lucky, 'Hey dude, give me a hug!' kid that I saw show up at Boshamer every day that he was a Tar Heel."
And he is, undoubtedly, a Tar Heel. Harvey attended the First Pitch Dinner in January and gave perhaps the best endorsement of Carolina baseball ever seen on the public stage, as he talked about turning down over a million dollars in high school to come to Chapel Hill. Think about it: he was 18 years old, and he turned down a million dollars. "It was," he says now, "the best decision I ever made."
It's a mutual admiration society, which is why Fox, Jackson and pitching coach Scott Forbes will be in New York tonight. Like the rest of the 45,000 strong capacity crowd, they will be watching Harvey intently. They'll just see him a little differently. He is absolutely a New York fixture now. He's dated a supermodel and appeared on Jimmy Fallon, poking fun at himself and his stardom in a video you really need to watch.
But his college coaches still see the 18-year-old who occasionally needed some guidance.
"I want to ask (Matt's father) Ed what he thinks of those ESPN The Magazine pictures," Fox says.
It may be a little surreal for the Carolina coaches. Harvey last pitched for them just three years ago, in June of 2010. It was recently enough that one of his teammates was Chaz Frank, who just played a significant role in propelling the Tar Heels into the 2013 College World Series.
"I feel like he was just here pitching for us," says Forbes. "Now he's starting the All-Star Game."
It's absolutely an honor. It's just that--and this sentence has probably never been written before--there's no way the All-Star Game could compare to Clemson.
Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly.