The fans arrived at Citi Field expecting to witness the rise of another phenom. After all, in his first full big-league season, Matt Harvey has delivered on all of his promise. So it seemed natural to expect the same seamlessness from Zack Wheeler.
But in the Mets' 13-2 loss to the Nationals Sunday, an announced crowd of 33,366 received a jolt of reality. For all of Wheeler's raw talent, the 23-year-old remains a work in progress.
"I'm starting to learn the hard way that you can't get away with mistakes up here as much as you do down there," said Wheeler, who took his first major-league loss in his Citi Field debut.
Before the second-largest Citi Field crowd of the season, Wheeler turned in the worst performance of his three-start big-league career. He lasted only 42/3 innings and surrendered five runs, two on solo homers by Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth and two on RBI doubles by Ian Desmond and Denard Span.
Wheeler cruised through a perfect first inning on only 13 pitches, striking out two. But he couldn't match that efficiency the rest of the day, allowing four runs in the second inning and departing with the Mets down 5-0. His ERA rose from 3.18 to 5.06.
Manager Terry Collins said he saw no evidence that Wheeler tipped his pitches, which was a concern after his previous start. In some ways, the issue appeared to be addressed. Wheeler finished with more strikeouts (five) and swings- and-misses (six) against the Nationals than he had against the White Sox.
Still, the Nationals teed off on Wheeler's fastballs. In his first two starts, he allowed only one extra-base hit off his heater. But the Nationals finished with four, including both homers.
Wheeler pointed to a familiar issue. "Obviously, it's my fastball command," he said. "That's the biggest thing, really."
Still, the Mets scrambled to find alternate explanations for Wheeler's struggles.
For instance, Collins wondered aloud if the Mets might have asked Wheeler to make too many changes so early in his big-league career. He also came away baffled as to why Wheeler's fastball velocity seemed to dip into the low 90s as the game progressed.
Catcher John Buck, who hit a two-run homer with two outs in the ninth, said he simply called for more two-seam fastballs, hoping it would help Wheeler throw more strikes, even though it cost the pitcher a bit of velocity. "He actually backed off the throttle and started locating," Buck said.
Wheeler himself acknowledged that his fastball came out with less life. He chalked it up to a mechanical tweak he's been trying to incorporate into his delivery, not a deliberate attempt to sacrifice velocity for command.
Either way, Collins said it is a topic that will be brought up this week with pitching coach Dan Warthen.
"He's a work in progress," Collins said. "And the future's still extremely bright and the ceiling is extremely high."
Yet for all the explanations, the simplest one also might be the most relevant. After all, even as Wheeler made his ascent through the minor leagues, command of his fastball remained a trouble spot.
Regardless of the growing hype, Wheeler hasn't done much in his first three starts to go against the scouting reports. His fastball sizzles in the high 90s and his breaking pitches have shown some bite -- not much different from Harvey. But Harvey has improved his command; Wheeler is only at the beginning of that process.
"I've always struggled with my fastball command," Wheeler said. "I've tried tons of things and I'm going to keep trying to get it better. Hopefully, something's going to click here pretty soon. Hopefully, once that happens, I'll just take off."
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