Zack Wheeler pitches well in loss to Nationals, allowing 1 run in 7 innings

Zack Wheeler delivers a pitch during a game

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

The buzz that surrounded Zack Wheeler's arrival three months ago has been transformed to a hush, as evidenced by the many empty seats at Citi Field for his start Wednesday night.

But the fact that Wheeler's starts no longer feel like an event here does nothing to diminish the importance of what's taking place on the field every time the 23-year-old pitches.

The Mets know that in order to have any chance of becoming a contender again next season, Wheeler's development into the top-of-the-rotation starter that scouts have been projecting is critical. And the uncertainty surrounding Matt Harvey's status for 2014 only makes it that much more imperative.

Wednesday night in a 3-0 loss to the Washington Nationals, Wheeler gave the team's decision-makers some more evidence why the notion of him becoming an ace soon is not all that far-fetched.

The young righthander allowed only one run in seven innings, lowering his ERA to 3.22.

Making one of the final starts of his rookie season as he nears his innings limit of 170, Wheeler showed off two facets of his repertoire the Mets love: his fastball and mound presence. His pitches topped at 96 mph while his demeanor never changed when faced with adversity.

His lone mistake in seven innings was an 0-and-2 slider to Ryan Zimmerman leading off the sixth. The pitch that he had used for strikeouts earlier didn't have much movement and stayed up in the zone.

"As soon as I let it go, I knew it would be spinning right down the middle, and he capitalized on it," Wheeler said. "I've been trying to do this since I've been up here, having to make pitches when I have to."

Otherwise Wheeler showed the attributes of a stopper, doing especially well with runners on. He held the Nationals hitless in seven at-bats with men in scoring position, including striking out Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond to end the first inning with runners on second and third.

"He now knows he's a major- league pitcher," manager Terry Collins said. "I don't think he has to go out and prove anything. He knows he can get outs. He knows his stuff is good enough."

Collins said he was "really concerned" when Wheeler was called up in June that he would focus too much on strikeouts to prove that all the hype about his high-90s fastball is legit. Instead, Wheeler learned quickly how to adapt his arsenal of pitches to the big leagues and success, if not wins, have followed.

In his last seven starts Wheeler has a 2.44 ERA and has given up only two home runs in 441/3 innings. Wednesday night he threw an impressive 70 of his 101 pitches for strikes, including nine swings-and-misses, most of which came on his slider.

Wheeler has now thrown 1632/3 innings this season, meaning his next start could potentially be his last. But the Mets have already seen enough to believe he's not too young to count on next year to be an integral part of their plans, especially if Harvey isn't in the picture.

Said Collins: "I don't think there's any question that people can now say this guy is legit."

Notes & quotes: The loss was the Mets' third straight, eighth in 10 games and officially eliminated them from postseason contention. Their offense managed only three singles . . . The anniversary of 9/11 was commemorated with a moment of silence before the game, with both teams lined up along the baselines. The Mets wore hats of the first responders during a brief pregame ceremony . . . David Wright, on the disabled list since Aug. 3 with a grade 2 right hamstring strain, ran the bases for the first time in his rehab. He will do so again todayThursday and "then try to amp it up effort-wise over the weekend," Collins said, adding that there is still no target date for his return.

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