Zack Wheeler confident he can be Mets' Opening Day starter

Zack Wheeler delivers a pitch during a game Zack Wheeler delivers a pitch during a game against the Washington Nationals. (Sept. 11, 2013) Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

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Zack Wheeler had plenty of time to think back Tuesday as he made the nine-hour drive from his home in suburban Atlanta to the Mets' minor-league facility in Port St. Lucie.

"It was half a season," Wheeler said, of his big-league debut last year. "But I can take that into this season, just knowing what it takes to get big-league hitters out."

That confidence bodes well for the Mets, who need the 23-year-old righthander to help fill the void left by Matt Harvey, who likely will miss the entire season recovering from Tommy John surgery.

After debuting in June, Wheeler finished the season 7-5 with a 3.42 ERA, showing the promise that made him the key piece in the Mets' 2011 trade of Carlos Beltran to the Giants.

A year ago, Wheeler arrived in camp, virtually assured he would begin the season at Triple-A Las Vegas. This year, a spot in the starting rotation awaits, along with perhaps another goal.

"My plan is to go in there and battle for the Opening Day spot," Wheeler said, reiterating a goal he set for himself at the Mets' holiday party in December. "I don't see why I couldn't do it."

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Pitchers and catchers don't report until Feb. 15. But Wheeler arrived in Florida, where he expects longtime Mets staffer Guy Conti to be waiting with a set of drills.

Wheeler gave himself about a month before resuming workouts near his home in Georgia alongside other big leaguers such as Jason Heyward and Tommy Hanson. He has trained with the group for several years, though this season was the first as a big leaguer.

Coming into camp, Wheeler said his focus is on throwing quality strikes.

"It really just starts with attacking the hitters, command wise," Wheeler said. "If you attack the hitters, you'll be throwing around the zone a little bit more."

Wheeler said last year's ascent left him exhausted, though he arrived in Florida with his batteries recharged.

"I think it was everything," Wheeler said. "I was moving around all the time and stuff like that. Not even just baseball stuff. It was everything combined. It was sort of just a big year, just a lot of stuff going on. I was physically and mentally drained. But I know what it takes now."

Notes & quotes. Dillon Gee was honored for his community service at Tuesday night's Thurman Munson Awards Dinner.

"It means a lot," Gee said. "We do charity work and we try to be involved, especially when we can. And then you get an award. It almost feels like they don't go together." . . . Though the Mets remain in contact with shortstop Stephen Drew, sources said Tuesday that the club has yet to extend a formal offer . . . The Mets would not rule out bringing back Francisco Rodriguez based upon the closer's past issues, a source said, though it's unclear the level of interest they've shown lately . . . Tickets for the Mets' March 15-16 exhibition games in Las Vegas will go on sale on Monday. The Mets will face the Cubs.

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