The rise of The Dark Knight as a Kansas City Royal had about as much drama as a Hollywood movie.
The second game of Wednesday’s doubleheader with the Cincinnati Reds couldn’t have had many more plot twists. It started with the return of Royals icon Mike Moustakas to Kauffman Stadium.
It contained an offensive slur uttered by Reds announcer Thom Brennamen that could prove career-ending. It ended with abrasive Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer exposing his undershirt commemorating his petulant toss of a ball over the centerfield wall last season – a shirt he is, of course, selling on his own website.
And for the first three innings, The Dark Knight himself was the central figure.
Matt Harvey, once heralded as The Dark Knight for his pitching prowess in Gotham City, has been but a shadow of his former self for the past five years. Harvey was on center stage when the Royals defeated him and the New York Mets in Game 5 of the 2015 World Series.
It was essentially his last moment on top. Arm troubles the next year wrecked one of the best pitchers in the game.
Harvey has bounced around ever since 2015, and he resurfaced Wednesday as one of the Royals’ reclamation projects. To get an opportunity in the pandemic-shortened season was not a certainty.
"I have a lot of emotions, a lot of excitement," Harvey said before Wednesday’s game. "There were definitely some worries about how this season played out — with 60 games and if I was going to get a shot or not. I’m very thankful for Kansas City for bringing me on."
Harvey pitched in Games 1 and 5 of the 2015 World Series, both of which the Royals eventually won in extra innings. He shut out the Royals for eight innings in the final game. But after he famously convinced his manager to leave him in for the ninth inning leading 2-0, he surrendered two earned runs.
While Harvey’s memories of losing the 2015 World Series are painful, he got a glimpse of what pitching in Kansas City could be like.
"Obviously I have a history here," the former all-star said. "Everybody I’ve ever talked to about the organization, everything they've said about the organization from ground up, is nothing but the best and full of class.
"The memories that came about with the World Series and that whole year, the electricity (in Kauffman Stadium) in Game 1, the atmosphere and the fans here, it’s exciting for me to be here."
Kansas City has a track record for rehabbing broken-down pitchers. Injured hurlers who successfully bounced back from arm problems include Bruce Chen, Ryan Madson, Kris Medlen, Chien Ming-Wang, Mike Minor and Homer Bailey. Currently, the Royals are resurrecting the careers of Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal.
With little to lose, the Royals signed Harvey to a minor-league contract after the season was underway. The 31-year-old pitched in the Royals’ alternate training site for about three weeks before getting his opportunity with the big-league club. Injuries opened the door for his start on Wednesday.
"I put in a lot of work, really with no idea of the future or if I was ever going to play again," Harvey said. "I don’t usually say this, but I am actually very proud of myself for sticking with it. There were days I wondered why I was even doing it."
The box score of Harvey’s first start as a Royal isn’t pretty, but there is some room for optimism. Facing the Cincinnati Reds, he surrendered just a single in the first inning, striking out two. He gave up a walk in the second inning, but struck out another batter. So far, so good.
Harvey induced a strikeout and a fly ball to start the third inning. He had retired eight out of 10 batters he’d faced. It was then, however, that the wheels came off. Harvey gave up a hard single, followed by back-to-back homers. He wobbled to the finish of the third inning, having given up four hits, two walks and three earned runs.
Manager Mike Matheny wasn’t discouraged by the performance, however.
"I was really impressed," Matheny said. "Better than what I expected from watching the video of him. Seeing it live, the ball was jumping out of his hand. I thought it was a good representation of where this might go."
To cruise through 10 batters, only to hit such a wall, suggests that Harvey tired. The velocity of his fastball seemed to back that up. He threw 54 pitches, which supposedly he was prepared for physically. He was not on a pitch count and had gone up to five innings in a simulated game at the Royals’ alternate training facility.
Harvey didn’t blame the end result on fatigue. He was upbeat following the game, and believed it was something he could build upon.
"It was kind of a surreal moment," Harvey said. "A lot of different nerves that I haven’t felt in a while. In my mind it was just two bad pitches that home run hitters are not going to miss. I think fine-tuning the offspeed is the next thing to come."
Like many aging pitchers, Harvey may be forced to learn to get batters out with less power and more guile. His average fastball Wednesday was about 3 mph slower than in his heyday. He averaged a respectable 93.2 on 30 fastballs in first start, but that won’t overpower big-league hitters.
How Harvey fits in the Royals big picture is the big question. With the Aug. 31 trade deadline just around the corner, he probably won’t be marketable. So the Royals are probably going to have to keep him through the rest of the season, then make a decision whether to sign him for 2021. With so many young starting pitchers in their system, committing a starting slot to a rehabbing 31-year-old doesn’t make much sense.
Harvey would come up again in the rotation next Tuesday at St. Louis. But there is no guarantee he will get that start.
Might Harvey be a candidate for the bullpen? He ramped his fastball up to 95.5 mph once Wednesday night. Throwing fewer pitches in short stints might make him more effective. It’s an idea the veteran is willing to consider.
"Whatever is needed," Harvey said. "I don’t have a ton of experience coming out of the bullpen, but my job is to come out and execute pitches, whether that’s in the first inning on, or coming in (from the pen). At this point in my career, just having the opportunity to play again has opened my mind to whatever role is needed."