WASHINGTON - Zack Wheeler could have sulked in the dugout. Though his fastball crackled in the upper 90s, he had no feel for where it was going Tuesday night. His curveball flattened out. He knew it would be a rough outing, even as he warmed up in the bullpen.
The Nationals confirmed as much, forcing the Mets righthander to walk a tightrope.
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"It's not fun," Wheeler said later, "when you're out there and nothing's really working for you. You're mad at yourself and you're trying to figure out what it is. I wouldn't say it's mentally draining, but it's frustrating."
But there is something to be gained from struggle. And after the Mets' 6-1 win, the 24-year-old had turned a lost start into perhaps his best of the season.
"Today was one of the best starts I've ever seen him have only because he had to battle, he had to compete," pitching coach Dan Warthen said. "His stuff was great but it wasn't going where he wanted to. But he still fought all game long and found the adjustment."
Wheeler struggled badly with his command, needing 33 pitches to sidestep a rough second inning, in which he somehow gave up just one run. But he pulled off a string of escape acts -- aided by some luck as well -- to pitch into the seventh.
All of it came because he made adjustments on the fly, a skill he has since refined in the big leagues. By the end, Wheeler (7-8) had kept the Nationals to just one run in 6 2/3 innings. His last seven starts have been a coming of age, a stretch in which he has posted a 1.59 ERA, even when half of those outings were a grind.
"This kid has really, really gotten better," Mets manager Terry Collins said.
The Mets, who pulled seven games behind the Nationals in the NL East, took advantage of some breaks. Daniel Murphy finished 3-for-4, though his biggest hit may have actually been an error on second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera.
In the seventh, with the Mets ahead 2-1, Murphy hit what should have been an inning-ending double play. But the ball bounced under Cabrera's glove, becoming a two-run single. Lucas Duda followed with a bloop to cap a three-run inning.
Until then, the Mets needed some magic to hold the Nationals at bay. Eric Campbell, starting just his second game in left, gunned down Jayson Werth at the plate as he tried to tie the score. Later, Juan Lagares made a diving catch in centerfield.
In the second, Wheeler had already walked the bases loaded, then bounced a wild pitch to give the Nats a run. But with runners on second and third, Jose Lobaton lined a ball toward shortstop, only to watch it strike the runner Cabrera. Had it gone through, the Nats would have taken the lead. Instead, Cabrera was ruled out and because the ball was dead, Ian Desmond stayed at third.
Pitcher Gio Gonzalez missed slicing a double down the rightfield line by about three feet, then flied out to end the inning.
From there, Wheeler went to work. He settled himself in the dugout before consulting with Travis d'Arnaud on some mechanical fixes. In the fourth, he sought out Warthen, who suggested a few changes after reviewing video. "He can ask for help and feels like he can make the adjustment because he knows his delivery well enough now," Warthen said. "His maturity is more than I ever dreamed he was capable of in this short a period."