On the eve of his 26th birthday, and with the help of a familiar backstop and some bright stars of the Mets' future, Steven Matz put the tumultous start to the 2017 season behind him.
The left-hander struck out eight over five perfect innings in his third rehab appearance since being shut down in late March with a flexor strain in his left elbow as Triple-A Las Vegas bested El Paso, 7-5, at Cashman Field.
Video: Matz notches eighth strikeout for Las Vegas
"It was a thing of beauty," Las Vegas pitching coach Frank Viola said. "He had good life on his fastball, spotted it well. He had a tremendous changeup and his curveball was thrown very well."
Matz was shut down in late March until early May with an issue unrelated to the shoulder problem that landed him on the 15-day disabled list last August. He threw 50 of his 73 pitches for strikes and did not report any pain in the elbow at any time during and after Sunday's start.
"I can count on one hand how many poorly thrown pitches he threw," the coach said of his fellow Long Island native. "After each one, he regrouped, stepped off the back of the mound and came back with a better pitch the next time."
Matz's return to the Mets rotation might require some more time. Viola said despite there being no current issue with the elbow, the left-hander was held to a soft pitch count as he is considered to be in the early stages of his recovery.
"That's up to the Mets. If you're asking my opinion, I don't think he'd embarrass himself by going up there, no question," the 57-year-old coach said. "But I don't think that he's 100 percent ready either. Just for the fact that he's only pitched in three games since July of last year. Another outing wouldn't hurt him."
Matz bookended his five-inning start with pairs of consecutive strikeouts. He began the first by punching out Rafael Ortega and Padres No. 9 prospect Carlos Asuaje looking. Asuaje was the only ranked prospect in the Chihuahuas lineup.
Gameday box score
Matz didn't fare nearly as well in his first rehab start for the 51s on May 23. In four innings, he gave up five runs on five hits, including two homers. On Sunday, only let three balls left the infield against him.
"The big thing the other day was that he wasn't comfortable on the mound," Viola said. "We had a nice side session, we fine-tuned things. We changed his angle of his foot on the rubber a little bit, so that's he's more directional towards the catcher. He followed through today with exactly what we worked on."
The 2008 second-round pick teamed with catcher Kevin Plawecki in his latest outing. Like Matz, Plawecki has spent time between Las Vegas and New York over the past few seasons.
"From all the years I've pitched, if you feel comfortable with your catcher, it makes your life a whole lot easier," the former 15-year pro said. "Kevin's known Steven for years. Kevin called a terrific game behind the plate. ... He wasn't afraid to repeat fastball on the inner half ... to repeat a curveball … to throw two or three changeups in a row. It helps tremendously."
Matz completed his outing with an 11-pitch strikeout of Dusty Coleman before giving way to Alberto Baldonado with the perfect game still intact.
"I think he'll be fine, as long as his elbow feels good -- which it does," Viola said. "I'd love to see him build it up a bit too."
With a leadoff single in the sixth, Diego Goris represented the first El Paso baserunner. Baldonado recorded just one out before allowing a run and being replaced by Erik Goeddel with the bases loaded. Jose Pirela bashed a grand slam to give the Chihuahuas' a 5-4 lead.
The 51s answered with three runs in the bottom of the frame, capped by an RBI double from Brandon Nimmo. It was the third of the game on a four-hit night for the Mets' seventh-ranked prospect.
Video: 51s' Nimmo cracks an RBI double
Second-ranked Dominic Smith amassed four hits and three RBIs. MLB.com's No. 3 prospect Amed Rosario singled in a run in the ninth, his only hit in five at-bats.
Hansel Robles earned his first save save after issuing two walks and a single, all with two outs, to cap the game.