Hit hard in his first two turns as he battled a painful blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand, Wheeler posted his best outing of the season Sunday for Triple-A Las Vegas, striking out eight and working into the sixth inning of a 5-4 win over Colorado Springs.
"Definitely better than the past two times," Wheeler said on Sunday. "I think my nail settled down a little bit, so that was good. Me and Randy [St. Claire, the pitching coach] have been working on a lot of stuff, keeping my front side in. I think I did a lot better job of that today. My breaking ball was a little bit sharper."
The Mets' top pitching prospect gave up three runs and six hits but walked none, which was most important to him. Wheeler had allowed 17 baserunners in 82/3 innings in his first two starts, causing some alarm after he missed most of the Grapefruit League games with a strained oblique suffered in batting practice in late February.
Wheeler said the blister, which burst in last Tuesday's start at Fresno, affects his ability to fully command his pitches.
"It just bites me whenever I finish it out front," Wheeler said. "I was trying to pitch out front, obviously, but it was in the back of my mind -- 'ow' whenever I finished."
He also fought a blister last year when he pitched for Double-A Binghamton. Catcher Travis d'Arnaud, the other half of the Mets' phenom battery, already had warned his pitchers that the dry air and brutal heat of summer in the desert could affect their fingers all season. He played the 2012 season with Las Vegas in the Blue Jays' organization before coming to the Mets during the offseason as the centerpiece of the R.A. Dickey trade.
Wheeler flashed his 97-mph fastball in the first inning and held that velocity while firing 61 strikes in 97 pitches. His biting slider and tight curve balanced the heater, and Wheeler mixed in a handful of changeups after tinkering with the pitch between starts.
"I loosened my grip on it a little bit," Wheeler said. "That allows it to move a little bit more and it slows it down also."
The inflated offensive numbers of the Pacific Coast League also could affect Wheeler's statistics. He discovered that Sunday when what seemed a routine fly to left by Tyler Colvin floated out for a solo homer in the second inning.
"I guess you saw it -- a regular fly ball becomes a home run," Wheeler said.
D'Arnaud has looked plenty comfortable during the first two weeks. The catcher drew nine walks and drove in six runs in his first nine games.
"I'm trying not to overthink anything," d'Arnaud said. "I feel good, not overaggressive. I'm waiting for pitches I can handle."