It wasn't Zack Wheeler's fault that the sun burned bright Sunday above Citi Field. Nor was it his fault that rightfielder Marlon Byrd lost two routine fly balls in the sunlight, or that catcher John Buck failed to block two pitches in the dirt and allowed another to bounce off his mitt.
Wheeler couldn't be blamed entirely for a three-run fifth inning that put the Mets on course for a 6-2 loss to the Royals.
Yet it was Wheeler who found himself on the receiving end of what Terry Collins called a bit of "old man advice" delivered in the dugout once the pitcher's rough afternoon was finished.
"I thought it was a time to let him know it wasn't your fault what happened today," Collins said. "But once in a while we've got to come together and you've got to pick the other guys up."
As he recounted the episode, Collins tried to choose his words with care. He said Wheeler "pitched fine" while allowing four runs, three earned, in five innings. At no point did the manager question his effort. Collins even acknowledged that "some things happened that weren't his fault" -- a reference to his team's painfully inadequate defense.
But Collins stopped short of entirely absolving the pitcher.
The Mets needed Wheeler to rise above the fray as the fifth spiraled out of control. Instead, he wound up facing nine batters. He got out of the frame only after he struck out fellow pitcher Ervin Santana, who held the Mets to one run in six innings.
Said Collins: "Today, I wanted to see in that inning Zack Wheeler say 'OK, you know what? I can throw 96. Here's a 96, here's a 97. But I'm ending this inning.' ''
But aside from the first, when he topped out at 96 mph, Wheeler worked mostly in the range of 93 to 94. When he encountered trouble in the fifth, his fastball remained a tick or two below his season average of 94.6 mph.
It might have been a sign that Wheeler was trying to aim his pitches instead of throwing them with conviction. Even from behind the plate, Buck said it appeared that Wheeler sacrificed velocity for command.
Said Buck: "I think he was maybe trying to back off because it was getting a little erratic."
For three innings, the trade-off was worthwhile. Wheeler had thrown strikes on roughly two-thirds of his pitches. But without his typical sizzle, he left himself vulnerable, and it caught up to him.
Mike Moustakas hit a solo homer in the fourth, so Wheeler shouldered some of the blame despite his defense's clear deficiencies, especially in the fifth.
Byrd lost David Lough's drive in the sun for what was scored a double. Three batters later, he did the same on Alex Gordon's drive to right-center, as the ball went off his glove for an error. Lorenzo Cain followed with a two-run single, making it 4-0, after Buck allowed a run to score on a wild pitch.
"It's on me, to make my pitches and keep the ball down," said Wheeler, who lost the feel for his mechanics as his start unraveled. But to Collins, it was precisely at that point that Wheeler needed to simply bear down and let his abilities take over.
Said Collins: "Once in a while, you've gotta reach back and say, 'I'm picking him up today. He dives and makes a catch for me last week or gets a big hit. Today, I'm picking him up.' That's when you really start earning the respect of your teammates."
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