Zack Wheeler still working on throwing first-pitch strikes

Starting pitcher Zack Wheeler of the Mets follows

Starting pitcher Zack Wheeler of the Mets follows through against the Atlanta Braves at Citi Field. (July 25, 2013) (Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke)

It was a day of firsts for Zack Wheeler . . . somewhat.

He earned his first Citi Field win in the Mets' 7-4 victory over the Braves; his three previous wins came on the road.

And for the first time, he faced a team that he had experience pitching against; his first career start on June 18 was at Atlanta.

But there also were those other pesky firsts: the first-pitch strike, which he didn't throw many of.

"I've been struggling with that all year so far," Wheeler said of his command. "Getting ahead is going to allow me to do a lot better, keep my pitch count down, go deeper into games, and sort of set guys up instead of trying to burn a fastball by them every time."

Wheeler's fastball is a much more effective weapon when the batter isn't ahead in the count and fully expecting it. But on Thursday he regularly pitched from behind, tossing a first-pitch strike to only eight of the 25 batters he faced.

He entered the game having thrown 49 percent of first pitches for strikes, according to baseballreference.com, well below the MLB average of 60 percent.

After an unearned run scored during a 31-pitch first inning, Wheeler (4-1) tossed perfect and efficient frames in the second and third. He allowed four runs (three earned), four hits, two walks and struck out five in six innings. Two of the hits were home runs by Dan Uggla (two-run) in the fourth and Freddie Freeman (solo) in the sixth as Atlanta tied it at 4.

"He used his off-speed stuff to kind of get him back on track today," catcher John Buck said. "He was able to back off the throttle on his own without me having to say anything or coax him to do that, so I think that's a step forward."

Terry Collins acknowledged the movement on the 23-year-old's fastball and his ability to get outs when he pounds the strike zone, but he added that he often has to work too hard and go too deep into counts.

"He'll make a great pitch and the next pitch will be out of the zone completely," Collins said. "I don't know if he's trying to make a perfect pitch, but it's very important that he be able to repeat his delivery to where if you make a good pitch, make another one in the same spot."

Doing so, along with getting ahead in counts, will help ensure that Thursday's win in Flushing is the first of many.

"I'm probably not pitching like I want to," Wheeler said. "But I'm trying to help the team out as best I can whenever I'm out there. We've been playing really well lately. Been swinging the bats and playing good defense and starting to turn it around."

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