PORT ST. LUCIE — There was only one thing getting in the way of Steven Matz last year.
That was Steven Matz.
Once Matz figured out how to best channel his energy with a productive routine and mindset between pitches, the lefty began to show the Mets the kind of promise he offers on the mound.
It all came to a head for Matz on April 25 in St. Louis. He breezed through the first seven batters, gave up a one-out single, then made a throwing error on opposing pitcher Michael Wacha’s sacrifice bunt.
When the dust settled, Matz had surrendered seven runs over 3 ¹/₃ innings.
“I threw the ball down the line on the bunt and it just kind of snowballed on me,’’ Matz told The Post at Mets pre-camp of the key moment of his season.
“I knew I wasn’t pitching the way I expect myself to pitch. I think I was over-competing a little bit, so after that game, that’s when Dave [Eiland, pitching coach] and Mickey [Callaway, manager] sat me down and asked what am I trying to do out here?’’
It was time for a change in the way Matz handled himself on the mound. In Cleveland, the Indians pitchers all have a set routine between pitches. Watch Corey Kluber and everything is the same between pitches. This practice came from their mental skills coach, and it was time to bring a similar routine to Matz, Callaway explained.
There are different touchstones, but watch Matz closely and you will see him touch the brim of his cap to reset after every pitch.
“It really helped having that conversation,’’ Matz said. “The main point was to just relax and to focus on what you can control. Focus on what’s next, that kind of mindset. That kind of took me into the rest of the season.’’
Matz, 27, focuses on the future — the next pitch — instead of what just happened, good or bad. That is a good lesson for all players.
Callaway said it’s no different than the routine Nomar Garciaparra once had, fiddling with his batting gloves between every pitch. He was refocusing while doing that.
“Whenever you are tense, it’s harder,’’ Matz said. “When you stay relaxed it’s easier.’’
“To me, repetition is the biggest thing,’’ said Matz, who reached 30 starts for the first time in his career as he posted a 5-11 mark with a 3.97 ERA. “It wasn’t just grinding through, going two weeks and being hurt, get 30 starts out there and pitching to the end of the season and gaining confidence.’’
Just 15.4 percent of balls put in play against Matz were line drives, the lowest rate in the majors (minimum 140 innings) and 48.8 percent of the balls in play against Matz were grounders, the ninth-highest percentage in the NL. He threw eight quality starts in his last 10 home outings and posted a 2.90 ERA.
“I started throwing two weeks after the season,’’ Matz said. “I wanted to make sure I was polished going into spring training.’’
More throwing is a tip he picked up from close friend and Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom, who picked it up from Hall of Famer John Smoltz.
“I think that old-school mindset of keeping it going, I think there is something to it,’’ Matz said. “You can still recover because you are not throwing as hard as you usually do.’’
Yes, there is something to it, and deGrom and now Matz are on board with that approach.
“Jake is a freak athlete,’’ Matz said with a smile.
They were both here in rehab back in 2011 and would fish together on a small boat they had.
“We talked about the future but it all seemed so far away,’’ Matz said. “Just playing in High-A to me was like so far away. It’s pretty wild that we are both here now and Jake is the Cy Young winner. He is a humble guy, but he has that confidence in his ability and I think the Cy Young will make him even better.
“Now he knows, ‘I’m the guy.’ ”
Matz, with his new routine between pitches, is striving to be his best as well.
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