Next up was rookie Rafael Montero, who wriggled out of a jam to continue his own strong spring. Then came uber-prospect Noah Syndergaard, who performed much better than his final line made it seem.
The sequence was identical to how things could unfold this summer for the Mets, who are asking Matsuzaka to do what he can for the early part of the season, until Montero and Syndergaard are ready to contribute.
If Matsuzaka or any other rotation member falters early, the Mets could use Montero as a bridge to Syndergaard, given his upper-Minors experience and the lesser concerns about his service time and future salaries. If the Mets' rotation instead stays intact into June, they may turn directly to Syndergaard and hope he looks as sharp as he did early in Thursday's outing.
Retiring the first batter he faced on a single pitch, Syndergaard whiffed four in a row and set down six straight Nationals before finally cracking for a run in his third inning. He left after retiring two Nationals and walking two batters in the eighth, trudging to the dugout as scattered Mets fans booed home-plate umpire Paul Nauert's strike zone. That sullied Syndergaard's final line because reliever Jacob deGrom promptly allowed a three-run homer to Brock Peterson, the first batter he faced. But Syndergaard's personal achievements remained clear.
"Is that a facetious question?" manager Terry Collins quipped when asked if he liked what he saw from Syndergaard, who has a 5.19 ERA with 10 strikeouts in 8 2/3 spring innings. "Yeah I kind of liked what I saw, of course. He's got great stuff. He's a big strong kid. I salute him."
Still, as March wears on, Syndergaard has become more openly honest about his immediate future. Having seen the Mets handle Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler in similar fashion -- he even recently spoke about it with Harvey -- Syndergaard knows he will open his season at Triple-A Las Vegas and almost certainly stay there until mid-June. That will allow the Mets to prevent him from becoming a Super 2 player, thus dampening his future salaries.
"I'm hearing a lot of stuff, but I'm just going out there and I'm going to make the most out of the opportunity and pitch as best I can," said Syndergaard. "The goal of mine is still to make the team, but I know there's a bigger picture involved."
That bigger picture is what makes Matsuzaka the heavy favorite to break camp as New York's fifth starter. Impressing Collins from the early days of spring, Matsuzaka has posted a 3.52 ERA in three spring starts, with -- and here's the part that really excites Collins and his staff -- seven strikeouts and zero walks. Though the Mets have not yet anointed Matsuzaka the fifth starter, they plan to convert John Lannan to relief and have talked openly about doing the same with Jenrry Mejia. Beyond those two, Matsuzaka has no serious competitors for the job.
"Until the decision is made, I have no say in it," Matsuzaka said through his interpreter. "But I have been preparing, expecting myself to be in that position.
"Other than throwing a few more innings, I think I'm overall ready to begin the season."
As for who ends it? Syndergaard and Montero may ultimately have a say in that.