Hometown hero Harvey is prince of Citi

A year ago at this time, New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey was a minor league prospect at Triple-A Buffalo, patiently awaiting his opportunity to make his MLB debut. In Tuesday night’s MLB All-Star Game, Harvey was the National League starter, in front of his Citi Field home crowd.

It was the top of the first inning, there were two men on base, nobody out, and arguably the greatest hitter in the entire sport staring back at him.

The first three pitches of the evening hadn’t gone very well for Harvey. Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout smacked a double down the first-base line on Harvey’s first toss. After a pitch that missed the strike zone, Harvey got the call from St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina to throw New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano a fastball inside. The pitch nailed Cano on the leg.

Two men on and the 2012 Triple Crown winner slowly walked to the plate. As Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera dug into the batter’s box, Harvey did his best to remain calm.

“That’s one that I knew I had to buckle down on,” the 24-year-old Mets ace said. “The last thing I wanted to do was get down 3-0 with no outs in an All-Star Game. I knew I had to make good pitches. Throwing to the best catcher in the game makes it a lot easier.”

With Trout on second base and Cano on first, Harvey took a deep breath. Then, he went to work. Cabrera, playing in his eighth All-Star Game, fouled off Harvey’s first pitch. With the count 0-1, he tossed an 87 mph changeup. Cabrera took a big swing and missed. Strike two. Ball. Ball. 2-2 count. Harvey dug in. Molina called a slider and the pitcher nodded. Cabrera took a big whack, but didn’t connect. Swing and a miss.

Strikeout.

Harvey got the next two batters, Baltimore Orioles slugger Chris Davis and Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista, to fly out and strike out, respectively.

The Citi Field crowd erupted. Harvey, the one positive in an otherwise lost 2013 Mets season, had just escaped a mighty jam on one of the grandest of stages.

Twenty-nine years earlier in San Francisco, Mets ace Dwight Gooden — who was sitting in the crowd Tuesday evening — struck out the side in the first All-Star Game appearance of his career. Tom Seaver, arguably the greatest Mets pitcher ever, was in attendance too on Thursday night, having thrown out the first pitch moments earlier. The history of the evening was not lost on Harvey.

“I did all right tonight,” he said. “I mean, you know, when I’m warming up out there and the crowd is chanting my name, that’s — again, that’s something that you, as a kid, I don’t think you could ever imagine. This whole experience has been absolutely incredible for me — you know, something I’ll just never forget. The whole thing has been absolutely incredible, and I couldn’t be more thankful of the support.”

In the second inning, Harvey was lights out. He popped up David Ortiz, he struck out Orioles outfielder Adam Jones after a 10-pitch battle, then got Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer to line out.

Walking off the field, Harvey didn’t acknowledge the crowd’s cheers or really take time to capture the moment.

“I’m used to walking off in the second inning and going back out there,” he said. “I wish I kind of stayed in the moment a little bit and gave a head-nod or what not. But the thanks was there.”

It’s been quite the week for Harvey, the host-city favorite. Just the 11th pitcher to start an All-Star Game in his home ballpark, he was a busy man. It started with a provocative photo shoot for ESPN the Magazine hitting news stands, it included a funny appearance on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” on Monday night, and it ended with a strong performance in front of the Citi faithful.

“I was texting with LaTroy Hawkins after I came out, and he asked, he said, ‘You look like you’re walking in the park,’" Harvey said. "Obviously there was some jittering going on in the bullpen, but for some reason, once I got out there, I felt great and it felt like I was at home.”

A lot can certainly change in 12 months. Harvey’s come a long way since those days in Buffalo.

And this is only the beginning.