Zack Wheeler impressive in his first appearance throwing to hitters
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PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- David Wright lingered to get a few more looks. Ike Davis did the same. Both of them should have been taking swings in the nearby batting cages. Instead, they stood on the field Wednesday afternoon, where they stole a few tantalizing looks at the phenom on the mound.
Zack Wheeler didn't seem to notice.
In his first live batting practice session in his first major-league camp, Wheeler was too focused on the task at hand. It was to be yet another mundane spring training task, throwing about 30 pitches to live hitters, all in preparation for his Grapefruit League appearance on Saturday against the Nationals.
But the session morphed into a spectacle, with players and fans coming away impressed.
"When all the guys that are supposed to be down in the cage stick around and watch you throw, and the fans who are in attendance are down around the field you're throwing on, obviously one of the top prospects in baseball is on the bump," said Mets utilityman Justin Turner, one of the hitters who faced Wheeler.
He compared Wheeler's fastball to Nationals sensation Stephen Strasburg, who is scheduled to appear against the Mets on Saturday. He also praised Wheeler's sharp curveball, which he flashed a few times during the throwing session.
"He's got some late life on his fastball," Turner said. "It kind of jumps on you. We're talking kind of like that late explosion that Strasburg has on his fastball. I was impressed."
Wheeler, 22, entered the session with modest goals.
"This early, especially today, too, it's just locating the fastball and keeping it down in the zone," he said Wednesday morning. "You only get 25, 30 pitches on Saturday so it's just about pounding the zone."
By the end, Wheeler had accomplished much more.
"The ball comes out of his hand pretty easy," manager Terry Collins said, though he was more impressed by the pitcher's composure.
Wheeler has spent his first camp trying to leave his teammates with a good impression. He has kept a low profile in the clubhouse while paying close attention to the advice of veteran teammates. But on the mound, Wheeler seemed to relish announcing his presence.
"I just liked everything about him," said veteran outfielder Marlon Byrd, who called Wheeler a future ace. "The way he was throwing, it looked like he was a reliever because he was throwing so hard. But I heard he can maintain 95 to 97, so he's going to be a good one. A very good one."
Wheeler likely will begin the season in Triple-A Las Vegas. "I think you've got to go into it as if you're going to be on the ballclub," Wheeler said. "If you don't, you're just going to be happy with mediocre. You've got to go in prepared. That's what I trained for this offseason. I'm looking to go in there to compete and make some decisions hard."