When Zack Wheeler’s right elbow gave out, he lost two full seasons to a treacherous rehab. His development as a pitcher came to a halt. The world around him kept spinning.
It didn’t matter that he had been among the first of the Mets’ big young arms to reach the big leagues. In his absence, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom blossomed into aces. Wheeler was left behind.
That knowledge gap came to the forefront at a windswept Citi Field on Friday night as Wheeler pitched in a big-league game for the first time since Sept. 25, 2014, and the Marlins thumped the Mets, 7-2.
Wheeler’s return lasted four innings in less-than-ideal conditions. In that span, he allowed five runs and six hits. His night was finished after 80 pitches. It was a reminder that unlike most of his rotation mates, he is not close to being a finished product.
“I wanted to come out here and dominate today, sort of put my foot down like I’m back, I belong here,” said Wheeler, whose vision did not match the reality.
Christian Yelich bounced a two-run homer off the foul pole in rightfield. Derek Dietrich lined a two-run triple off the base of the wall in centerfield. Opposing pitcher Wei-Yin Chen legged out a slow roller for his first major-league hit in 51 at-bats. It was that kind of night for Wheeler.
“It’s the first step in a long road back,” manager Terry Collins said. “He’s back out there and he’s going to get better.”
Wheeler, 27, had not felt the butterflies of a big-league start in 925 days, but the nerves disappeared quickly. On the walk from the bullpen to the dugout, he soaked in the moment. He chuckled at the corny jokes of pitching coach Dan Warthen. He ran onto the field behind Wilmer Flores, the player he was packaged with in 2015 in an infamous non-trade with the Brewers.
Even though Wheeler looked impressive in spring training, Collins acknowledged a certain degree of uncertainty heading into the start.
“I think we are still in the dark about how he’s going to handle things, the command of his pitches, the durability of his arm after not pitching for two years,” he said before the game. “But he’s put in a lot of work. He’s excited about being out there.”
But plenty of work remains. Wheeler wasn’t helped by temperatures in the low 40s and 30-mph wind gusts, and command proved elusive in the swirling winds that sent food wrappers blowing across the field. When it was clear that Wheeler couldn’t spot his off-speed offerings, the Marlins teed off on his fastballs. “It’s knocking some rust off,” he said.
Still, adrenaline pushed Wheeler through the first inning, a perfect frame. He reached 97 mph with his fastball, showing the same kind of life he displayed in spring training. That’s when the Mets became convinced that he finally was healthy after Tommy John surgery.
But as the night wore on, Wheeler’s fastballs lost their zip. By the time he departed, they were closer to 93 mph.
Wheeler left with the Mets (2-2) trailing 5-1. Rafael Montero fired 2 2⁄3 innings of scoreless relief and Yoenis Cespedes hit his first homer, a solo shot.
But results aside, Wheeler took an important step. He debuted in 2013, before both Syndergaard and deGrom, who have since passed him. DeGrom has 77 starts in the majors, Syndergaard has 55. Friday night’s start was Wheeler’s 50th.
“It’s not what I wanted,” he said of the results. “But it was good to be out there.”