Wheeler deals the hard stuff in preview

U.S. Futures All-Star Zack Wheeler, then of the U.S. Futures All-Star Zack Wheeler, then of the San Francisco Giants, throws a pitch during the 2010 XM All-Star Futures Game. (July 11, 2010) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- At the spring training complex here, Field 4 is the farthest from Digital Domain Park, where the Mets hosted the Braves Saturday afternoon.

But on that distant patch of grass, Zack Wheeler attracted a fairly big audience, from the minor-leaguers who crowded the radar gun to the pack of reporters looking to get a sneak peek at the future. Even SNY, the Mets' own network, sent a remote camera to patch in video of Wheeler's early Double-A debut during the live broadcast.

For Wheeler, a pitching prospect obtained in a trade for Carlos Beltran, it's what he's come to expect. This is why he has accumulated more than 10,000 Twitter followers since the Mets acquired him in July. And it's not going to end anytime soon, with a dizzying escalation that will explode when Wheeler arrives in Flushing, maybe in 2013.

"It's . . . whatever," Wheeler said of the attention. "I don't know."

The reason is obvious. Against the Double-A Cardinals, Wheeler's velocity stayed consistently in the range of 95 to 97 mph, with a still-developing slider at 88 to 91 and a changeup that hovered between 83 and 89. In three innings, he allowed an unearned run, two hits and three walks with one strikeout.

His fastball was overpowering, especially at that level. But with the infrequent use of his breaking pitches, even that could be timed on occasion. The slider actually is a cut fastball, for now as Wheeler works on a grip that will produce a sharper, longer break.

"It's more of a cutter right now, which I'm not meaning to do," Wheeler said. "That's what I have a feeling for. All I've got to do is get my fingers in front of the ball, which I'm trying to do in the bullpen."

It is those types of projects that require Wheeler to remain in the minors through the end of this year. Despite the hype, he is only 21, and he's not a finished product yet.

"I've been working in the bullpen on a few things with my mechanics," Wheeler said.

As for his first outing this year, it was satisfactory.

"I think I did pretty good," he said. "I just tried to stay down in the zone, just get ground balls, try to work with all my pitches. You don't try to go out there and just blow everybody away the first time out."

But that's exactly what Wheeler did Saturday in the first inning, when he retired the side on 13 pitches. The opening batter got to see only three: a 93-mph fastball for a called strike, a 96 that was fouled off and then 97 on the black to finish him.

It was quite an opening statement, but Wheeler appeared mortal in the next two innings.

He began the second with a pair of walks and then was hurt when his second baseman, Robbie Shields, let a routine grounder skip through his legs for a run-scoring error.

In the third, he got two quick outs before allowing an infield single and an opposite-field hit to right. After another walk, the inning was halted at the manager's discretion, a feature unique to March minor-league games.

Afterward, Wheeler was asked if Saturday's gun readings are typical for him. The deadpan yet unintentionally humorous response could very well have been lifted from his Twitter account.

"Yeah, I guess," Wheeler said. "Expect what you want -- that's just what comes out."

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