SAN DIEGO -- Zack Wheeler needed to test his boundaries.
In his first 10 big-league starts, the talented Mets righthander had gained a rough idea. He sensed what kind of mistakes he could get away with against the best hitters on the planet. And through his failures, he learned which ones would not be tolerated.
He accumulated those lessons, which were reflected in fluctuating results. But Thursday night, in his 11th appearance, Wheeler seemingly turned a corner.
As the Mets beat the Padres, 4-1,, Wheeler admitted he did not have his best stuff. His fastball never touched 98 mph -- a familiar destination when Wheeler is at his best. His slider never displayed the biting action he sees as ideal. Instead it took too much of a sweeping path.
Yet, the 23-year-old set a career high with 12 strikeouts while allowing just one run in six innings of a no-decision. He set another career high with 115 pitches, but he walked just one.
"I feel like I'm getting better every time out," Wheeler said. "It's a learning experience, that's the biggest thing. Every time, I learn something new."
The lesson Thursday night was about the power of trust, specifically in his own gifts. Wheeler acknowledged trying too hard to live up to the hype earlier in the season. But Thursday night he found himself in a comfort zone, especially with his mechanics.
By the fourth inning, Wheeler had surpassed his career high of seven strikeouts, and he lost command of his fastball by going for more.
Said Wheeler: "I got a little carried away and I was trying to strike some people out."
But it was the right problem to have -- a sign that Wheeler simply trusted that his stuff was good enough to see him through.
"He has made a vast improvement," said Mets manager Terry Collins, who watched his team snap a three-game skid.
Marlon Byrd snapped a 1-1 tie in the eighth with a two-run double, made possible when rightfielder Chris Denorfia broke in on the ball when he should have been backing up. Rookie Gonzalez Germen, closing because of injuries to LaTroy Hawkins and Bobby Parnell, worked two scoreless innings for the save.
But the victory came back to Wheeler, who also got some help from his outfield. Juan Lagares saved a run by throwing out a runner at the plate for his 10th assist of the season. He later made a diving catch.
Leftfielder Eric Young Jr. prevented Rene Rivera's third-inning drive from leaving the ballpark. Young leaped at the wall and swatted the ball away, forcing Rivera to settle for a triple.
Wheeler's progress was apparent during a quiet moment on the mound as umpires looked at video to see if Rivera's triple actually bounced over the fence.
Rivera tipped his hand during the at-bat, swinging wildly at a pair of fastballs. It was yet another sign of just how hard Wheeler's fastball can be to hit. And it should have been an indication to Wheeler that even a mediocre pitch would have been enough to finish the job.
"You could throw a terrible slider and he wouldn't have got that in the right location," catcher John Buck said.
Instead, in his zeal to throw a perfect slider, Wheeler let one spin over the plate. It was Rivera's only chance to do any damage, and he had jumped on it.
Buck came to the mound to reinforce the point. Except, Wheeler immediately sensed his mistake. And before Buck could start, the pitcher admitted that he should have simply trusted his slider would be good enough.
"He knew where I was going," Buck said. "He kind of told me the answer."