MIAMI - With growth comes pain, and since debuting one year and one day ago, Zack Wheeler has endured plenty.
The Mets righthander has hit all the usual bumps that come with becoming an established big-league pitcher. He's reached the point when raw ability ceases to be enough. He's confronted his own weaknesses.
The reward for those struggles came Thursday night, when in a 1-0 win over the Marlins, Wheeler delivered the first shutout of his big league career.
"I know I can do it every time out," said Wheeler, who held the Marlins to just three hits. "I know I have the stuff. It finally feels good to go out there and do it and be efficient with my pitches."
The spotlight had been on lefty Andrew Heaney, the highly touted Marlins pitching prospect making his big-league debut. But Wheeler seized it, facing the minimum until he allowed a two-out single to pinch hitter Reed Johnson in the bottom of the ninth.
David Wright bashed his sixth homer of the season in the first inning, a towering blast off Heaney that came to rest on the brightly-colored home run sculpture that adorns left-centerfield.
The rest fell on Wheeler. Heaney, 23, limited the Mets to just one run in six innings. But Wheeler delivered a complete-game masterpiece, striking out eight and walking just one.
"It was his night," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "That's why I just said I'm going to run him back out there, I don't care what his pitch count is. He's deserved it. He's earned it."
As is typical for young pitchers, Wheeler has endured bouts of wildness, while sprinkling in moments of brilliance. He entered the game with a 2-7 record and a 4.38 ERA, nearly a full run higher than what he posted last season.
But against the Marlins, Wheeler operated with precision, with full command of all four pitches. That dominance showed against dangerous Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton, the National League leader with 20 home runs. In the first inning, Wheeler got Stanton with a nasty curveball, fooling the slugger so badly that the bat slipped out of his hands. In the fourth, he got Stanton to swing through a fastball at his knees. In the seventh, Stanton hit a lazy fly ball, capping an evening in which he was rendered powerless.
Escalating pitch counts have become a staple of Wheeler's starts. But he buzzed through the Marlins. Three times, he allowed the leadoff man to reach. Three times, he induced double plays. By the ninth inning, his fastball was still lighting up the radar gun at 96 mph.
"These are the results you get when you have that type of fastball, that kind of stuff, and you throw strikes," Wright said.
One day before, Collins pulled Bartolo Colon after eight dominant innings against the Cardinals, only to watch the bullpen nearly squander the lead. But with Wheeler at 97 pitches to begin the ninth, Collins sat on his hands.
It was the right decision. With two outs, pinch hitter Reed Johnson lined a single to center. But Rafael Furcal ended the game by lining out on Wheeler's 110th pitch. He had never gone more than seven innings in 31 previous starts.
Only once, in the minor leagues, had Wheeler ever logged a complete game. Said Collins: "You can grow from something like this tonight."