Zack Wheeler to make Mets debut Tuesday night

Zach Wheeler sits in the dugout after pitching

Zach Wheeler sits in the dugout after pitching during the second inning of a game against the Washington Nationals in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (Feb. 23, 2013) (Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa)

ATLANTA - Zack Wheeler studied a piece of paper posted on the clubhouse door.

Prepared daily by pitching coach Dan Warthen, the sheet spells out that day's workload for every arm on staff, which now officially includes Wheeler. To him, it was new, which is why he was reading closely when suddenly interrupted by a shout from the other side of the room.

"Rookie!" a veteran yelled.

It was one of the few moments Monday that Wheeler was actually treated like a 23-year-old who had yet to throw a pitch in the big leagues.

Wheeler complied without hesitation, making his way to the other side of the clubhouse. However, on his first day in a big-league clubhouse, it was clear he is no ordinary rookie.

When the righthander makes his debut in the nightcap of Tuesday's doubleheader against the Braves, it will be only a half-hour from where he grew up, and about an hour's drive from where he made himself into one of the game's premier pitching prospects.

As he sat under the lights of a makeshift news conference room in the bowels of Turner Field, Wheeler attempted to play down his big-league debut, calling it "just another game."

Of course, it is not. Not when it is scheduled to come after fellow phenom Matt Harvey pitches the opener of the doubleheader. Not when a few dozen friends and family members are expected to attend. Not when Terry Collins already has felt compelled to remind fans that Wheeler, for all his talent, shouldn't be viewed as a savior.

"I don't think I'm the savior at all," Wheeler said. "It's going to be a big moment in my life."

That Harvey has succeeded so soon after his debut last season has only added to the expectations.

"He set the bar so high because he just took off once he came up here," Wheeler said. "Some people expected it and some people didn't. I'm just going to go out there and do the best that I can. People can take it how they want it. Hopefully, I'll do well and I'll just be up there with him."

Wheeler spoke from a dais, a setup typically reserved for playoff games or retirements. But since the day he came to the Mets, the key ingredient in a trade that sent Carlos Beltran to the Giants nearly two years ago, Wheeler has been no stranger to the hype. And on the eve of his debut, the anticipation manifested itself in the television camera crew that recorded many of Wheeler's movements, including mundane acts such as adjusting his cleats at his locker.

Bobby Parnell and Jon Niese planned ahead for the media crush. The occupants of the lockers immediately next to Wheeler's used training tape to mark an area off limits to reporters.

The hype already has deprived Wheeler of a special moment. Most prospects receive the news they've been called up after making the typical trip to the manager's office. Not Wheeler. By the time Triple-A Las Vegas manager Wally Backman told him, Wheeler had already been given hints by people in the organization, which were backed up by media reports on his Twitter feed.

But the hype couldn't spoil everything about the experience.

"No matter how good these guys are, no matter what all the clippings they've had in their past . . . when you walk into it for the first time, it's special," Collins said, shortly after greeting a smiling Wheeler in the clubhouse. "It's fun."

But once on the field, Wheeler said he will think about a piece of advice that has stuck with him through the years. It came from Steve Kline, a former big-league pitcher and Wheeler's pitching coach during his earliest days in the Giants' farm system.

"Whatever you do, don't go up there and look up," Wheeler said. "Because all the lights, and the fans, and everybody moving, it will make you sick."

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