Mickey Callaway called it swagger — the quality that allowed Zack Wheeler to have that renaissance season last year and the quality he rediscovered after a rocky start in 2019.
Sure, there were more concrete aspects to his dominance — adjustments to his timing and better control — but confidence can go a long way, too, as long as the mechanical stuff is in place.
But there didn’t look to be too much of that swagger in the second inning against the Reds on Monday night. Instead, Wheeler — coming off three straight solid starts — looked rattled as he lost sight of the strike zone and the BABIP forces plotted against him. He walked the first two batters, softly hit balls dropped in, the Reds scored four runs and an important start seemed to go awry.
Good thing for Wheeler that confidence isn’t the only thing that went right last year; it was resilience, too. He was, after all, the pitcher who didn’t have a job out of spring training.
After that disastrous inning Monday, he buckled down and bounced back, holding the Reds scoreless for the rest of his six-inning outing and at least giving the Mets a chance. They eventually tied the score against Tanner Roark and company, getting Wheeler off the hook.
“Wheeler did a great job of not sulking because I think four runs — any time you give up four runs or more, I think pitchers have a tendency of saying, ‘Oh, it’s a bad night now,’ but Wheeler didn’t do that,” Callaway said. “He bounced back, made the adjustment and pitched really well after that.”
Wheeler allowed seven hits — three in that second inning — and four runs, walking three and striking out four. It hardly was a display of dominance, but for a team trying to turn around its starting pitching, it certainly wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Said Callaway, “This is a big series not just because it’s at home, but we’re trying to turn this pitching around, and [starters Wheeler, Jason Vargas, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard] that we’re trying to turn around are all pitching.”
DeGrom’s and Syndergaard’s struggles this year have brought Wheeler to the forefront, especially after he seemed to figure something out after his first two starts, two messy affairs against the Nationals. After those outings, pitching coach Dave Eiland noted that he had been speeding up his delivery, and the two worked to rectify the problem, to good effect.
In his three starts after that, Wheeler was 2-1 with a 2.25 ERA, culminating in a seven-inning scoreless gem against the Phillies last Tuesday. Monday was sloppier, with his velocity down to about 95 mph and those two walks hurting him. He even was visited by trainer Joe Golia after throwing a 91-mph fastball, though Golia and Callaway were quickly assured that Wheeler was fine.
“It’s all a mindset — take pride in it and try to stop it and find out what’s going wrong in between pitches,” said Wheeler, who said he was having some trouble out of the stretch in the second. “I beat myself up for that second inning tonight because if I would have kept them off the board, at least a run or two, we would have won that game pretty easy. So yeah, it’s a tough game for me.”
At least he didn’t allow it to snowball — something that allowed Callaway to call it a successful start, even if Wheeler wouldn’t. “If he doesn’t walk those first two guys, he probably doesn’t give up a run all night and goes seven or eight,” Callaway said. “The starter’s job is to keep us in the game and give us a chance to win. We definitely had that all night.”