Zack Wheeler respectful of his opportunity at first camp

Mets pitcher Zack Wheeler warms up as he

Mets pitcher Zack Wheeler warms up as he gets ready to pitch against the Washington Nationals in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (Feb. 23, 2013) (Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa)

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- On the morning that he turned Mets camp into his own personal showcase, Zack Wheeler strolled into the clubhouse, parked himself in front of his locker and said nothing.

Left undisturbed, he might have stayed there until it was time to stretch. Only when approached did Wheeler engage in conversation. Even then, he kept his voice down, mindful of those around him. Other than a few brief interludes, Wheeler maintained his position near one corner of the room, his eyes and ears open, his mouth shut.

"I've just been sitting here minding my own business," said the pitching phenom, who is going through his first major-league camp. "If they talk with me, then I'll talk with them, you know?"

But if not, Wheeler has kept to the clubhouse code, staying under the radar in deference to the team's veterans. They have noticed his efforts to go unnoticed.

"It looks like he's got a nice confidence about him, a nice swagger," third baseman David Wright said. "That's kind of what you want from a young player. He's been relatively quiet. He's been soaking it in. It seems like he's doing a lot more listening than talking."

Wheeler, 22, is considered one of baseball's top pitching prospects, and his first major-league camp has unfolded exactly as he had planned. The only place he's announced his presence has been on the field. In that regard, it has been a busy week.

On Wednesday morning, before a crowd of eager fans and team executives, he dazzled during a brief session of live batting practice. He followed that up Saturday by tossing two innings of scoreless relief in the Mets' Grapefruit League opener against the Nationals.

With a fastball that topped out at 96 mph, Wheeler bounced back from early command issues. He struck out two and allowed one hit. Indeed, his performance deviated little from glowing reports that have long touted him as a potential ace.

"He's the real deal," Mets manager Terry Collins said this past week. "We know that."

Less known, however, was how Wheeler would handle his first exposure to a major-league clubhouse. In that regard, his composure throughout camp has drawn as much attention as what he's actually done on the mound.

During Wheeler's midweek throwing session, several of the team's veterans lingered for a longer look. Some focused on his pitches, his flowing pitching motion, his presence on the mound. Others looked for clues they hoped would reveal Wheeler's comfort level at camp.

Veteran outfielder Marlon Byrd was curious to see how Wheeler would react whenever he missed the strike zone.

"You see, what do they do? How are they receiving the ball back?" he said. "Are they listening to instruction from the pitching coach?"

Byrd got his answer when Wheeler bounced a ball in the dirt, calmly took the return throw from the catcher, then threw a fastball that nicked the corner of the plate. It was a pitcher's pitch, virtually unhittable, and to Byrd, it revealed something telling about Wheeler.

"He's got the stuff," Byrd said. "If he keeps that composure and he knows he's good, he's going to be here for a long time."

That composure came in handy again Saturday afternoon before a national television audience. Coming on in relief in the third, Wheeler walked the first batter he faced, then pulled a fastball clear toward the other side of the plate. The pitch glanced off the mitt of catcher John Buck, who jogged to the mound, convinced that Wheeler was overthrowing.

He was joined by some of the same veterans who had stayed to watch Wednesday afternoon. First baseman Ike Davis joined the conversation, as did Wright, who wanted to give Wheeler a "few seconds to catch his breath." Buck cracked a joke about the young pitcher's pounding heartbeat, managing to get a smile.

They left Wheeler on the mound with a clear message. "We saw what you did the other day," Wheeler recalled later. "Just go after them. Just pitch."

With his nerves in check and his command back in check, Wheeler struck out the last two batters of the inning, both with fastballs. He came back out for another inning, allowing a single and nothing more to complete his impressive spring training debut.

"To be able to kind of settle down and get over that emotional part of it I think was impressive," Wright said. "That's why he's as hyped as he is because he's really able to settle down and get out of jams."

LaTroy Hawkins, whose first major-league camp was with the Twins in 1995, has been around long enough to have seen plenty of young players take missteps in camp.

"My biggest pet peeve is guys that come in thinking they know everything already," Hawkins said. "They've got it all figured out. No, you'll never have it all figured out."

Wheeler's locker is just to the right of Johan Santana, to the left of another young pitcher in Matt Harvey and two down from Shaun Marcum. The proximity has made it easy to strike up small conversations.

Wheeler said he has learned by watching how others run through drills, or how they approach what can be tedious work in the weight room. Said Wheeler: "Nothing really caught me off guard or anything."

He said the Mets' decision to send him to an offseason rookie development seminar ultimately proved helpful once he arrived in camp. While at the session, he gained a sense of what to expect from other younger players, who shared their experiences after getting a taste of the big leagues last season. Wheeler brought back one key piece of advice.

"Go in with open eyes, open ears," he said. "Listen to your veteran guys. It's my first camp, so I'm just sitting here, speak when I'm spoken to, that kind of thing. Just don't get in people's way."

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