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Nationals speak kindly about Zack Wheeler

From left, Zack Wheeler and Matt Harvey watch

From left, Zack Wheeler and Matt Harvey watch the action during Game 2 of a doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. (June 18, 2013) Credit: Getty

The Washington Nationals didn't care that Zack Wheeler's parents were in the stands and that the rookie pitcher had drawn 33,366 fans to watch his Citi Field debut Sunday.

All they cared about is that he was throwing pitches they could hit -- such as the 94-mph fastball that Adam LaRoche crushed off the facing of the Pepsi Porch sign on the rightfield overhang on Wheeler's first pitch of a four-run second inning. That hit was the first of six off Wheeler before he was pulled after 42/3 innings with a 5-0 deficit in an eventual 13-2 loss.

And though much to-do had been made about Wheeler tipping his pitches -- the Mets believe that in his previous start, his shoulder position might have signaled to the White Sox what he was about to throw -- the Nationals chalked up their big afternoon to simply taking advantage of a young player getting used to the big leagues.

"You've got to like his arm," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "He has a good fastball and breaking stuff. But it's command. It's always going to be command up here. No matter how hard you throw, you have to locate. That's been a little bit of his problem."

After he struck out his first two batters swinging in a 1-2-3 first inning, things fell apart for Wheeler, 23, in the second. He allowed four hits, a walk and four runs, including LaRoche's home run and RBI doubles by Ian Desmond and Denard Span sandwiched around an RBI single by Kurt Suzuki.

Desmond rolled his eyes at the notion that Wheeler was tipping his pitches.

"If he was, I wouldn't tell you," said Desmond, who hit a two-run homer in the ninth off catcher Anthony Recker, who came in to mop up.

It's not atypical for a rookie pitcher to experience early hiccups. Matt Harvey, for instance, allowed five runs and eight hits, including two home runs, in five innings in his third major-league start last Aug. 5 in San Diego. LaRoche, however, believes that part of the problem is that because of Harvey's success, Mets fans may be spoiled when it comes to judging young pitchers.

"It's tough to compare anybody to Harvey," LaRoche said. "He's one of the best I've faced maybe in my career. His stuff is so good, it's tough to compare anybody to that."

Johnson agreed.

"It's unfair to compare anyone to Harvey," he said. "He's exceptional. He's got the stuff and he has command. This kid has the stuff. He just doesn't have his location down pat."

Ryan Zimmerman, who was 0-for-3 against Wheeler, said he was impressed by his arm but added that he lacked consistency.

"Today, he had trouble throwing strikes," Zimmerman said. "I don't care who you are. When you get behind in this league, it doesn't matter if you throw 100 like Harvey or 80. It's tough to pitch when you're behind."

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