Zack Wheeler wanted to be the New York Mets’ Opening Day starter. Instead, he was handed the third game of the year by manager Terry Collins. This was Wheeler’s chance to act like an ace, trying to prevent a sweep at the hands of the Washington Nationals.
New York couldn’t avoid its third straight loss to begin 2014, but he displayed some characteristics of why he will be the pitching staff’s ace this season.
The young right-hander received valuable lessons in the 100 major league innings he threw during 2013. He performed well, posting a 7-5 record with a 3.42 ERA and 1.36 WHIP. However, the areas to improve were clear: being consistent in his windup and controlling his pitches.
Despite putting together a quality start—he allowed three runs on seven hits, two walks and six strikeouts in six innings pitched—Wheeler didn’t have his best stuff.
It was tough for him to get into any kind of rhythm on Thursday since the leadoff hitter reached base in each of the six innings he pitched. He did continue displaying his ability to either minimize damage or escape it completely.
Denard Span led off the game with a walk, but Wheeler retired the side in order after that. The offense rewarded him with two runs in the bottom of the first inning.
Ryan Zimmerman punished a hanging slider to start the second, but Wheeler buckled down again and kept Washington off the board until the fifth inning. That’s when another leadoff walk led to two runs and a loss of the lead.
ESPN New York’s Adam Rubin captured Wheeler’s displeasure with his start:
It all starts with me, though, giving up the three runs. I should have done better and not given up any. If you’re going to win ballgames, you’ve got to keep the walks down, keep the runs down, keep guys off the bases.
Wheeler posted a 4.1 BB/9 rate in 2013, a big reason why he averaged less than six innings per start upon making his debut on June 18.
While only allowing two free passes, he exited after six innings and 114 pitches, one shy of his career high. Giving way to what’s been a bad bullpen in the season’s first three games, the contest got out of hand, as the Nationals ran away with an 8-2 victory.
He couldn’t go deeper into the game because he threw a first-pitch strike just 53.9 percent of the time. If he’s going to take a huge step forward this season, that number needs to increase by at least 10 percentage points.
Getting ahead earlier in the count more often will allow him to depend on his fastball less than he did last season. He threw it 71.1 percent of the time in 2013, not leaving much room to mix in his secondary pitches and keep hitters off balance.
David Schoenfield of ESPN's SweetSpot was quick to point out that Wheeler is not Matt Harvey, and Mets fans shouldn’t hold him to the same expectations.
This is true.
However, someone needs to step forward in Harvey's absence, and it will be Wheeler. He showed on Thursday he’s more than capable of doing so.
Similar to 2013, he was stingy with runners on base. Wheeler was pitching from the stretch practically the entire game with the leadoff hitter reaching base each inning. Most of the 114 pitches he threw were stressful, and only allowing three runs is impressive considering the amount of solid hitters that stepped to the plate for Washington.
He said he shouldn’t have given up any runs, but any pitcher will say that. He kept the Mets in the ballgame, which they could have easily won. When he exited, they were only looking at a one-run deficit. It’s hard for any ace to win when the bullpen and offense don’t provide adequate support.
Allowing walks—especially those of the leadoff variety—can wreak havoc on a pitcher’s outing. Wheeler is aware of the importance of minimizing his walks, and he showed improvement by doing so on Thursday.
The fact that he still posted a quality start and kept his team in the game is a good sign. He worked hard through his debut against a deep lineup to ensure he gave the Mets a chance to win.
When an ace isn’t at the top of his game, that’s the best he can do. He could’ve done better and held Washington scoreless, but if New York wants to win 90 games, they’ll have to score more than two runs.
It will only get better from here for Wheeler. He may not be Harvey, but he will step forward and be the ace that Terry Collins needs in the middle of his rotation this season.
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