PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Had all gone according to plan on Wednesday, Zack Wheeler would have taken center stage, looking in for the sign at the start of the Mets' game against the Cardinals. Had everything fallen into place, he would have faced Carlos Beltran, the star outfielder whom the Mets traded to the Giants for Wheeler two years ago.
But the Mets' top pitching prospect suffered what the club called a mild strain of his right oblique, making him a late scratch from what would have been his second Grapefruit League game. How long he'll be sidelined remains unclear.
As the Mets took a 12-4 pounding, Wheeler watched from a lunch table in the clubhouse. He ate snacks and chatted with teammates after they had been pulled from the game, including his replacement, Darin Gorski, who allowed a two-run double to Beltran.
"It's early in the spring," Wheeler said. "Don't want to risk anything. We've still got a month and a half left . . . Hopefully, I'll be out there for the next start. Nothing serious."
The 22-year-old prospect suffered the injury taking batting practice in the cage before his first scheduled start of the spring. The club doesn't believe the injury is serious.
"It's mostly precautionary at this point," general manager Sandy Alderson said. "He tried to throw and didn't experience any problem, but he was sore to the touch."
According to manager Terry Collins, Wheeler indicated he could have pitched yesterday, though the Mets weren't going to endanger the pitcher some scouts regard as a future ace.
"You're certainly not going to take a chance," Collins said. "We've got to be very, very careful because we're not going to do anything to hurt this guy."
Even with plenty of the Mets' top prospects in big-league camp, Wheeler's appearances have attracted even more attention, and Wednesday's game would have carried some added significance.
Wheeler, who threw two scoreless relief innings in his Grapefruit League debut, said he looked forward to facing the man for whom he was traded on July 27, 2011. Beltran and Wheeler had never met until a chance encounter a few hours before first pitch. The two exchanged pleasantries near the indoor batting cages at Tradition Field.
"I finally got to meet him," Wheeler said. "It's kind of cool to meet the guy you're traded for."
However, the second meeting on the field wasn't meant to be.
Collins said Mets pitchers have been taking batting practice every day. And until Wednesday, the sessions had gone on without incident. But soon after working in the cage, the lefthanded-hitting Wheeler felt soreness in his right side. He will receive treatment, and the Mets don't have an exact timetable for his return.
Until then, Beltran's only impressions of Wheeler as a pitcher will come from what he's read in scouting reports and heard from others.
"All I have heard is just that he's a good prospect, he has good stuff," Beltran said. "He's a young guy and they have the guys here to mold him to be the pitcher that he can be for the organization, the ace that they're looking for."