Mets righthander Zack Wheeler and catcher Anthony Recker huddled shortly after the first inning Saturday to discuss a fairly straightforward quandary.
Whenever Wheeler found the strike zone with his fastball, Recker noticed that the Phillies had trouble handling it.
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"Honestly," Recker said after a 5-4 win over the Phillies, "he was beating guys so much with the fastball when he was in the zone, he really didn't have to throw much else."
But in what has been a hallmark of his first six major-league starts, Wheeler struggled to command that overpowering fastball, which he threw for strikes only 63 percent of the time.
As a result, he needed 106 pitches to throw only 42/3 innings, falling one out short of qualifying for the win. He left with the bases loaded in the fifth, and Gonzalez Germen preserved his 3-2 lead by striking out Delmon Young.
David Wright's run-scoring single in the fifth and Daniel Murphy's RBI single in the seventh made it 5-2.
Wheeler gave up two runs -- including Jimmy Rollins' game-opening home run -- seven hits and two walks with five strikeouts. Germen, Scott Rice and LaTroy Hawkins tossed 31/3 innings of scoreless relief and the Mets survived Chase Utley's two-run homer off Bobby Parnell in the ninth.
"That's not going to work," said Wheeler, who fell behind in the count most of the afternoon. "That's part of my game I'm going to have to fix pretty fast."
Certainly, Wheeler had a few positives.
The Mets jumped on Cole Hamels (4-12) to take a 3-1 lead in the first inning, helped by RBI singles by Marlon Byrd and Juan Lagares, and Wheeler never surrendered the advantage. Eight times the Phillies sent a batter to the plate with a runner in scoring position. Each time, Wheeler denied them a hit. The best they could muster was Utley's sacrifice fly in the fifth.
Said Recker: "He made some pitches when he needed to and got out of some jams."
And Wheeler bullied hitters with his fastball, which he used to generate 10 swings and misses.
But at some point, Wheeler must figure out how to get through his starts without relying on his ability to work out of jams. Though he has held opponents to a .125 average with runners in scoring position, his performance in those situations likely is unsustainable.
"He's hard to hit," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "He's got good stuff. He's got a live arm. When the ball's in the strike zone, it's got some good movement."
Since his promotion, Wheeler has shown flashes of dominance. In his previous start on July 10 in San Francisco, Wheeler held the Giants to one run in seven innings, helped by a sharp changeup. But on a sticky 93-degree afternoon against the Phillies, he found himself battling to keep his mechanics consistent.
Said Wheeler: "This day it really didn't feel good at all."
From behind the plate, Recker noticed that Wheeler struggled to properly finish his pitches, which contributed to his command issues. Wheeler threw mostly fastballs and sliders, an easy choice on a day in which he lost the feel for his changeup and curveball.
It caught up to Wheeler in the fifth. He already had allowed one run in the inning when he walked Darin Ruf to load the bases. "That's definitely tough," he said. "I wanted to get through that inning, not just for the win but to get out of that jam so we didn't have to use the bullpen earlier than we had to."
By then, Collins said his decision was fairly straightforward, especially given that "you could tell he was out of gas."
"I did the best I could to let him try to get out of it," Collins said. "But he's got 11 more, 12 more. We'll certainly run him out there every five days and hopefully he gets better."