WASHINGTON - Zack Wheeler officially entered uncharted territory.
But judging from the way he handled the Nationals in the Mets' 11-3 blowout win last night, the righthander is well on the way to figuring out how to coax his body through the season's grueling final month.
The 23-year-old burst through his previous innings high for a single season. He logged 149 in the minors last year, and after holding the Nationals to two runs in 62/3 innings, he has pushed his 2013 innings total to 1512/3.
For all the hand-wringing about his diminished velocity, Wheeler looked fresh enough. His fastball at times registered at 96 mph, and for most of the evening, he worked comfortably in the mid-90s. But most impressive was his command.
Wheeler, who struggled to throw strikes earlier in the season, emphasized command of his breaking pitches as his fastball velocity decreased. Those efforts paid off against the Nationals. Wheeler struck out only three but scattered five hits and a walk.
"It's just trusting yourself a little bit more, I think," he said. "You don't necessarily have to throw 97 and throw it by a guy."
Wheeler finished with his fifth consecutive quality start.
"In the back of your head, you gain a little confidence," he said after improving to 7-3 thanks to plenty of run support.
The offense has been vulnerable for long stretches, even before an injury sidelined David Wright and a trade sent Marlon Byrd and John Buck to the Pirates. Coming by runs could become even more difficult after the resurgent Ike Davis left in the third inning with an oblique injury that might sideline him for the rest of the season.
Nevertheless, for the second time in three games, the Mets finished with a double-digit run total. Their 17 hits were a season high. In the third inning alone, the Mets sent 11 men to the plate and tied season highs by collecting seven hits and scoring six runs. With that, the Mets were well on their way to routing a Nationals team that entered the series hoping to make a playoff run.
Wheeler did not surrender a hit until reliever Tanner Roark legged out an infield single in the third. After Denard Span followed with another hit, Wheeler retired seven straight.
Not until the sixth inning did the Nationals get on the scoreboard. With the bases loaded, Jayson Werth lined a sacrifice fly to leftfield to drive in Anthony Rendon, who led off the inning by getting hit by a pitch. Ian Desmond followed with a broken-bat single to drive in Span.
After a visit by pitching coach Dan Warthen, Wheeler stopped the damage at two runs, then survived to pitch another inning. It was partly a function of Wheeler's improved efficiency.
Even after struggling in the sixth, Wheeler began the seventh at 88 pitches. In the dugout, he asked Terry Collins to let him go back out for the next inning.
"Then stop telling everybody you're tired. Then you'll go out there," Collins said with a laugh. "What this shows you is that this guy competes."
Wheeler recorded two outs in the inning before Collins pulled him at 99 pitches -- a concession to keeping the pitcher below his innings limit.
"He had all of his pitches tonight," catcher Travis d'Arnaud said. "He had good fastball command, good off-speed command. Usually when you have that, success happens."
Notes & quotes: Newly acquired reliever Vic Black is expected to be among the Mets' call-ups today when rosters expand, GM Sandy Alderson said . . . Lefty Robert Carson was demoted to Triple-A Las Vegas. He is expected to be replaced by veteran lefty Tim Byrdak . . . Matt den Dekker collected his first major-league hit, a run-scoring bloop single off Dan Haren.