Inconsistency makes Zack Wheeler more like A.J. Burnett than Matt Harvey

Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler wipes his face Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler wipes his face with a towel while sitting in the dugout after allowing six runs on six hits in two innings of a game against the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday, June 25, 2014 at Citi Field. Photo Credit: AP / Kathy Willens

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Anthony Rieber Newsday columnist Anthony Rieber

Anthony Rieber has been at Newsday since Aug. 31, 1998 and in his current position since July 4, ...

Terry Collins was so impressed with Zack Wheeler's last start -- a cracking three-hit, 1-0 shutout of the Marlins -- that Wednesday night he invoked the name of a once-in-a-generation pitcher in discussing the potential of the Mets' righthander:

Matt Harvey.

We've got another name after Wheeler's ghastly two-inning, six-run performance in an 8-5 loss to the A's at Citi Field:

A.J. Burnett.

Now, before you hit the send button on those charming "you're crazy" emails, first know that there's nothing wrong with being A.J. Burnett.

The 37-year-old former Yankee has two World Series rings ('03 Marlins and '09 Yankees), has made more than $135 million and has a career record of 152-139. We should all be so successful.

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But what characterizes Burnett's career more than his successes is the belief that he has never lived up to his raw ability. For 16 seasons, it's been the same story. Incredible stuff. Incredibly inconsistent.

I asked David Wright before Wheeler threw a pitch Wednesday night if he thought Burnett was a good comp for Wheeler.

"I guess a little bit, with the body type," Wright said. "Curveball. Hard thrower. I can see that comparison. I can kind of see that a little bit."

Now I was only asking Wright about stuff, not makeup. While it's too early to permanently brand Wheeler as anything, the Burnett-like signs of inconsistency are there.

Vs. Miami: 9 innings, 3 hits, 0 runs, 1 walk, 8 strikeouts.

Vs. Oakland: 2 innings, 6 hits, 6 runs, 2 walks, 4 strikeouts.

How do you go from untouchable in one start to unwatchable in the next?

"His kind of stuff," Collins said, "I haven't seen him get hit that hard -- probably ever."

Asked if it was especially disappointing, Wheeler said: "Of course. Because I did so well last time. I know I have it. I don't even know what to say. Just a bad outing."

One at-bat crystallized Wheeler's problems. Scoreless game, first inning, man on first, Brandon Moss up.

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First pitch was a curve way outside. Second was a 97-mile per hour fastball way inside. Third was a flat 89-mph breaking ball that Moss sent to the back of the Pepsi Porch for a 2-0 Oakland lead.

In the second inning, Wheeler struck out the side. That was the good news. The bad was the four runs on two walks and three hits, including Coco Crisp's RBI single and Yoenis Cespedes' three-run double.

Down 6-0, Wheeler recovered to strike out Moss (90-mph slider) and Josh Donaldson (96-mph fastball) to end the inning. That earned him sarcastic cheers.

Collins had little choice but to bat for him with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom half. Wilmer Flores lined to left as Wheeler sat stone-faced in the dugout after a 48-pitch disaster.

"Maybe he wasn't in the same zone tonight," Collins said. "I don't know."

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Wheeler (3-8, 4.45 ERA) said he thought the A's had stolen his signs. It's hard to imagine how they had the time since he only faced 14 batters.

Collins has been careful to not oversell Wheeler. That's why the manager gushing before the game was noteworthy.

"You always hope after they get exposed to the major leagues and they find out what it takes to win here, guys with his ability step up and take control of the league," Collins said. "I think with what we saw the other day, he's doing that. Outstanding stuff throughout the game, good command of all his pitches. Similar stuff we saw with Matt after he got exposed. Those kind of guys -- they can be really, really special."

And they can also be really, really maddening.

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