NEW YORK -- The future is what matters now to the Mets. They said so themselves before Wednesday's 5-2 loss to the Rockies, prematurely ending Johan Santana's season so that their ace can nurse himself back to health.
Hours later, they watched another critical piece of their future, Matt Harvey, buzz through the Rockies with six impressive innings. The loss was hardly Harvey's fault; the Mets did not fall behind until after the bullpen entered. And losses, at this point, carry less weight than development and evaluation.
As for the latter, catcher Kelly Shoppach's evaluation of Harvey was only three words long: "He's really good." And he was. Clicking from the start, Harvey struck out five of the first six batters he faced and did not allow a hit until the fourth.
But that hit cost him. The next batter, Dexter Fowler, moved Jonathan Herrera to third base with a single, later landing awkwardly on second base and spraining his right ankle. Two batters later, Wilin Rosario plated the only run off Harvey with a sacrifice fly.
"I feel like there's more that I could have done, and more that I could have helped the team with," Harvey said. "Going eight innings and not giving up a run would have been nice."
Inefficiency aside, the right-hander was dominant, whiffing nine and walking two. Harvey's 43 strikeouts are the most by any Mets rookie over his first six starts, one more than Nolan Ryan in 1966 and three more than Dwight Gooden in 1984. Tom Seaver wasn't close. Neither was Jerry Koosman.
"You've got to get the guy out any way you can," Harvey said. "Fortunately enough, I've gotten some good strikeouts in good counts and in quality situations."
But the Mets have lost four of the six games that Harvey has started, averaging a shade over two runs per game when he pitches. Though the Rockies own the league's 30th-ranked pitching staff, the Mets have scored a total of five runs this week in three games. As a result, they have lost all three.
"Another strong, consistent pitching performance from our group collectively," was how Rockies manager Jim Tracy described it, adding that "it was absolutely necessary the way Matt Harvey was throwing the ball. We definitely had to pitch the way we did tonight to afford ourselves a chance."
The only offense the Mets could muster against starter Jeff Francis came in the first, when Ruben Tejada doubled and scored on Scott Hairston's sacrifice fly. Francis gave up nothing else in his five innings and, for the third straight night, Colorado's bullpen was stout. Rockies relievers have thrown a dozen innings in the series, allowing two runs.
Mets relievers were not quite so stingy, giving up four runs in three innings after Harvey left the game. Though Ramon Ramirez claimed responsibility for half of them to take the loss, a scattered crowd at Citi Field reserved most of its venom for Frank Francisco, who served up another two runs in a non-save situation. Allowing at least one run in four of his last six outings, Francisco bloated his ERA to 6.42.
He, like Santana, is under contract for next season, making his struggles more than a passing concern. But of most concern to the team this week was Santana, who cut short his season upon learning that he is dealing with lower back inflammation. So strong for the Mets earlier this summer, Santana faded considerably over the past two months, mirroring the overall performance of his team.
As a result, the Mets are looking at the final six weeks of the season as a prolonged audition for some of their younger players -- with Harvey front and center. The former first-round pick has improved noticeably throughout his young career; since giving up five runs in his fourth start earlier this month, Harvey has posted a 1.83 ERA and allowed nine hits in 19 2/3 innings.
"It's not just his God-given ability -- it's what he's got in here," Collins said, pointing to his head. "He asks all the right questions. He pays attention. He's the first guy on the bench before a game starts. He's there throughout the game. He listens. He wants to learn. He truly is living up that, 'I'm not just here to be one of the guys. I'm here to be the guy.'
"During an absolutely brutal stretch, there have been some bright spots, and he's one of them."