Perhaps last season, Wednesday would have been one of those "bad days" for Zack Wheeler. An earlier-than-normal, 12:10 p.m. start time, a bit of early trouble, and the young righthander could have been headed for an early cool- down.
But this is not last year and this is not the same Wheeler. It's a more mature version, one with a little experience under his belt, and, as Mets manager Terry Collins said before the game -- in what turned out to be a bit of foreshadowing -- one that can channel incredible competitiveness into positive results.
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"His growth, this summer alone, has been so impressive," Collins said. "His last three or four starts, he's taken it to another level as far as command of stuff and competitiveness . . . He has gotten himself out of some big situations. A year ago, he wasn't the same guy. Now, he reaches back and says 'I'm getting out of this inning.' "
Wheeler found himself in a big situation in the second inning of Wednesday's 11-2 win over the Phillies at Citi Field. He allowed three consecutive one-out singles to load the bases. But, after striking out opposing pitcher Kyle Kendrick and forcing pesky Ben Revere to fly out to centerfield, Wheeler escaped -- unscathed.
"They had a few things going and I got myself out of it," Wheeler said. "After that, I started to coast a little bit better and made pitches more often."
Making pitches in tough situations is part of the game, Wheeler said. But, as the levels increase and the stakes get higher, those pitches become more and more pressure packed.
"Anywhere that you go, you have to make your pitches," he said. "I got myself in a couple of jams and had to get out of them. I guess that is part of maturing."
Wheeler even helped his cause at the plate, laying down a sacrifice bunt in the fifth inning that moved Juan Lagares to third. Lagares scored on a Kendrick wild pitch later in the inning to tie the game.
"I don't know why [Kendrick] didn't throw another low fastball because that's a pretty hard place to bunt," Wheeler said. "He threw it right down the middle and I was like 'Thank goodness.' I got the bunt down and got the job done."
When Wheeler left the game with two outs in the seventh inning, it wasn't as a sometimes overmatched rookie, but instead as another bright spot in a starting rotation that's full of promise and a team that's full of youthful excitement.
The win improved Wheeler's record to 6-8 and lowered his ERA to 3.60. The 24-year- old allowed two runs on seven hits, struck out four, walked two, and threw 112 pitches, 70 for strikes.
Before leaving, Wheeler showed one last glimpse of his budding maturity. After Jimmy Rollins, pinch hitting for Kendrick, homered to lead off the seventh and cut the Mets' lead to 4-2, Wheeler got both Revere and Grady Sizemore to fly out to leftfield.
"There's one of the outings that we're going to talk about down the road," Collins said. "He didn't have real good stuff today. You looked up and he pitched really good."