WASHINGTON - Teacher and student butted heads. At least that's the way Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen remembers his earliest interactions with Zack Wheeler.
"Early on, I think I rode him pretty hard," Warthen said this week. "And we probably didn't have the happiest of relationships. But I think he appreciates it now more than anything because of the improvement."
Wheeler insists he was always "open eyes, open ears."
"I'm just a quiet guy," he said. "Especially at first."
But teacher and student wound up on the same page. And it resulted in a season in which Terry Collins credited Wheeler for making "huge strides."
For Wheeler, that season ended Thursday night in a 3-0 loss to the Nationals. Pitching the back end of a doubleheader, Wheeler allowed three runs in five innings, departing after 107 pitches.
His final pitch of the season was a wicked curveball to Tyler Moore.
The Nationals' Gio Gonzalez struck out 12, a career high, while holding the Mets to one hit in seven innings. The defeat officially sent the Mets (77-82) to their sixth consecutive losing season.
With Wheeler, the Mets hope to end that run next year.
"I had my games where I was up and down through the year," Wheeler said. "But it's all a learning process and it made me that much better this year."
Acquired in the 2011 trade that sent Carlos Beltran to the Giants, the Mets have long envisioned Wheeler, 24, as part of a championship-level starting rotation. "He made huge advancements all season long," Collins said.
Wheeler finished 11-11 with a 3.54 ERA while logging a career-high 1851/3 innings, enduring the grind of a full summer for the first time. Perhaps just as important is that he stayed healthy, allowing him to continue his steady maturation.
"I think he is probably the most improved pitcher that we have throughout the course of the year," Warthen said.
To be sure, Wheeler remains an unfinished product. He remained prone to long innings, upping his pitch counts, which ultimately cut some of his outings short. But he found consistency in critical areas, such as with his delivery.
"He's been able to get a delivery, he's been able to stay with it," Warthen said. "And when he got in trouble he was able to continue to stay with his delivery."
In the first inning, Ruben Tejada dropped a pop-up in shallow left, but Wheeler worked around the miscue. In the fourth, when the Nationals threatened to blow the game open, Wheeler held the damage to just three runs.
"There have been times where we booted a ball behind him when he first came up and that was it, he was done," Warthen said. "He was just going to blow up and walk people and try to throw harder and try to get by. This year, it's 'I can get through this, I can maintain.' "
That progress has only accelerated as teacher and student have developed a level of trust, a process that began late last year.
Wheeler wondered if Warthen had misunderstood his quiet demeanor. Warthen once thought the promising pitcher might be resistant to change. Nowadays, he calls Wheeler "a good listener," one who has learned to go beyond just relying on his mid-90s fastball.
Said Warthen: "He has a chance to be great."
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