Zack Wheeler was in trouble.
He had just allowed two singles in the second inning. There were no outs.
But seemingly unfazed by the circumstances, the righthander skillfully escaped in a way only an ace could.
Strikeout. Strikeout. Strikeout.
"That's the part I think where he has grown from last year," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "He'll get in a jam and then all of a sudden he'll take over an inning."
A year ago, Collins said, Wheeler would have attempted to "maneuver his way through" the inning and perhaps be satisfied with allowing a run. Now he dominates those situations.
"I have matured a little bit, especially in jam situations, where I've unfortunately gotten myself into a lot of those this year," said Wheeler, 24, who never has been labeled an ace but certainly is pitching like one lately. "So I've been able to work out of those and make the pitches that I have to."
Wheeler's metamorphosis was showcased as the Mets beat the Cubs, 3-2, Friday night at Citi Field.
Wheeler (8-8, 3.49 ERA) allowed two runs and four hits in 62/3 innings with four walks and 10 strikeouts. It was his third career game with double-figure strikeouts and first since notching 10 against the Marlins on April 25. Wheeler, who threw a career-high 120 pitches, is 5-0 with a 2.02 ERA since June 30.
The third inning was Wheeler's most challenging. It started with a leadoff walk to opposing pitcher Travis Wood, who reached third on a single by Javier Baez and scored on Anthony Rizzo's groundout. Starlin Castro drove in Baez with a single as the Cubs took a 2-0 lead. Wheeler threw 25 pitches in the inning, which put him at 59 at that point.
It looked as if Wheeler's night would be a short one, but he faced only 10 batters in the next three innings and needed only 45 pitches to retire them.
Wheeler's 116th pitch was timed at 97 mph. It was a four-seam fastball that blew by Justin Ruggiano for the second out of the seventh inning.
At that point, Collins said he thought, "Let him go one more. What the heck? He deserves that chance."
But Wheeler walked the next batter, Chris Coghlan, on four pitches and was taken out.
Wheeler, who has pitched into the eighth inning only once this season, said limiting the number of pitches he throws per at-bat is the next step of his development.
"You never want to come out as a pitcher," he said. "You want to get through seven at least, if not deeper. But all season my pitch count has been high. It's something I'm definitely going to look at during the offseason and try to figure it out."