LAS VEGAS -- Hype meets hope Tuesday in Atlanta when Zack Wheeler is expected to make his first start in the big leagues for the Mets.
The minor-league education of Wheeler lasted three years and Thursday night's dominant performance at Cashman Field suggests he stands ready for his next exam.
Pitching on six days' rest and capped by the Mets at 85 pitches, Wheeler struck out seven and allowed just one run and one hit, a line-drive home run to rightfield by Carlos Peguero in the fifth inning. Wheeler issued two walks, the second knocking him out of the game in the top of the sixth.
With his fastball sitting at 96 mph, Wheeler deftly mixed in a slider and tight breaking ball against a Tacoma lineup featuring three players who started on Opening Day for the Seattle Mariners this year.
"I feel great," Wheeler said. "I feel comfortable. I was trying to pound the zone. The curveball was working for me today. I was able to throw it over for strikes early in the count and get them off balance."
Wheeler came to spring training hoping to start the year in New York, but an oblique injury cost him most of camp. A blister on his pitching hand slowed Wheeler in April and right shoulder inflammation sent him for an MRI in May, but Baseball America's 11th-ranked prospect now feels healthy and ready.
When asked if he has thought about starting Tuesday for the Mets, Wheeler said, "Obviously, yeah. I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be a lot of fun. It's just going to be another game.''
But there will be plenty of hype, which doesn't seem to bother Wheeler. "It's part of the job," he said. "Like the trade. It's part of baseball. Stuff's gonna happen. When you're making your first big-league start, you're eventually gonna have to do it. Just go out there and concentrate on pitching and doing what you know how to do."
Backman said Wheeler improved in Las Vegas despite the injuries. He finishes his time in Las Vegas with a 3.93 ERA in 13 starts, striking out 73 batters in 682/3 innings.
"Zack has put in his time," Backman said. "It's time for us to take a look at him in the big leagues. He's ready for the opportunity and I want to see him throw seven shutout innings when he gets there."
Backman feels the pressure of pitching in New York will not faze Wheeler. "I would think,'' Backman said, " that it would make him even better."