WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Zack Wheeler delivered his loudest statement of spring training Thursday when he touched 97 mph on the radar gun and raised eyebrows among those who soon will decide how the Mets righthander will be used to start the season.
In the Mets’ 3-1 loss to the Nationals, Wheeler used his second Grapefruit League start to provide further evidence that he’s past the bumpy rehab from Tommy John surgery that has kept him out of big-league games since the end of the 2014 season.
“Every start out sort of makes me realize hey, that’s behind me,” Wheeler said. “And I’m just ready to move on and pitch with these guys during the season and hopefully win some games.”
Perhaps Wheeler could find himself making a difference right out of the starting gate.
With an innings limit of about 120 innings this season, combined with a slow start to spring training, it had been easy to assume that Wheeler could start the year in extended spring training. But the Mets insist that no final decisions have been made, and Thursday’s outing showed why the last few weeks of camp could prove critical.
“We certainly don’t know what’s going to happen,” manager Terry Collins said. “We haven’t made any decisions yet. To be honest, truly honest, we haven’t had any discussions on what Zack Wheeler’s role’s going to be in the next two weeks.”
Wheeler, 26, allowed two runs and three hits in 2 1⁄3 innings. He threw 50 pitches, striking out two and walking one. The damage against him included a homer by Bryce Harper, punishment for a changeup that caught too much of the plate.
But beyond the stat line, Wheeler showed signs of progress since earlier in camp, when he was slowed by tenderness in his surgically repaired elbow that put him behind schedule.
Wheeler topped out at 97 mph but sat closer to 94-95, a jump from his first outing on March 3, when he maxed out at 94. That velocity came with a smooth, easy delivery, devoid of any signs of straining to get more on his fastball.
“He’s come along real fast,” Collins said.
Wheeler’s secondary offerings brought further proof that he may be turning the corner. He was pleased with the break on both his curveball and slider. And more important, he seemingly has bounced back well after his outings.
“It just tells you he’s back,” Collins said. “The biggest worry was after two years, it’s command, is he going to be able to bounce back? How much more can his arm take? So far, he’s shown that he is back. That’s why I’m so happy about the way he threw.”
One scout noted the crispness of Wheeler’s slider as another sign of health. “I just feel a little rusty, but it’ll come around,” Wheeler said. “The pitches were coming out good. Threw the slider a little more today, changeup, that’s what Harper hit out . . . Obviously, I need to work on that a little bit, fine-tune it. But this is the time to throw it, got to work on it.”
If Wheeler stays on track, his performances could necessitate a few decisions. The Mets have pondered using him in the bullpen, a concession to his innings limit. They also have considered whether it’s best to use his available innings early in the year or to conserve them for later in the season.
Whatever they choose to do, Wheeler said from a strictly physical standpoint, he believes he’s on track to be ready for the start of the season.
“I’m honestly ready to pitch right now, whether it be bullpen, starter, or who knows what, I don’t know,” Wheeler said. “I’m ready to go as of right now. Like I said, it’s up to them, though. Whatever they say, I’m fine with.”
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