WASHINGTON - The learning curve is steep. Not that Zack Wheeler didn't already understand. After all, it has been 11 months since the Mets righthander made his big-league debut, enough time for him to get a sense of the challenges ahead.
Through it all, expectation has been a constant companion, which Wheeler clearly understands, as well.
After Sunday's 6-3 loss to the Nationals, he turned the focus toward himself, and what he must do to push through his own rough stretch.
"It's been a bunch of bad starts in a row here," said Wheeler, who slogged through six innings against the Nationals. "So I need to hurry up and turn it around, get back on the right track."
Wheeler allowed five runs, three earned, six hits and struck out five. The Nationals, who jumped ahead 5-1 through five innings on a pair of two-run hits by Mets killer Wilson Ramos. By the end, Wheeler had also walked two, putting him in a tie with the Phillies A.J. Burnett for the second most free passes (26) in the National League.
That distinction only underscored Wheeler's continuing battle with his own command and efficiency.
"He had really good stuff today," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "He just made a couple of mistakes and they got some big hits."
Ian Desmond hit a solo shot against Wheeler in support of Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann (3-1 3.70 ERA), who allowed eight hits but just three runs in six innings.
The Mets (20-23) lost for the fourth time in their last five games, partly because they made two baserunning gaffes, committed a pair of errors, and allowed the Nationals to score three unearned runs.
"It's impossible to go through the whole season and play your best baseball every day," Mets captain David Wright said. "But there's got to be some sort of gray area where we're able to squeak out a win when we're not playing well, and it doesn't seem like we're doing that."
Part of that inability, Wright conceded, might be a reflection of the team's youth. And Wheeler is part of a group that has been learning on the job. Much like his Mets team as a whole, Wheeler has demonstrated competence in spurts, though consistency remains elusive.
In his previous two outings, Wheeler (1-4, 4.53 ERA) had combined to walk 11 batters, and he has yet to enjoy one start in which he has combined his raw abilities with sharp execution. But despite the righthander's lackluster final line, pitching coach Dan Warthen said he saw reason to be encouraged.
"He's on the right road now," said Warthen, who noted how Wheeler battled in spots.
For instance, Wheeler needed 53 pitches to get through his first three innings, but just seven to navigate the fourth. Still, he made costly mistakes, the kind he can't keep repeating.
The first miscue came on a fastball down the middle to Desmond, which he turned into a game-tying solo shot in the second. The next came in the third, a hanging slider that Ramos pounded for a two-run double.
Even when he summoned his command, as he did when he buried an inside fastball on Ramos, Wheeler didn't skate. Ramos hit a two-run single that pushed the lead to four in the fifth.
"Obviously, guys are starting to figure me out a little bit, see what I have," said Wheeler, who must now figure out a way to respond.