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Zack Wheeler takes a backseat, and he's just fine with that

Zach Wheeler throws a bullpen session during spring

Zach Wheeler throws a bullpen session during spring training on Feb. 18, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Comfort can be found in relative anonymity.

Zack Wheeler can attest. A year ago when he arrived at camp, television cameras tracked his every move. He was the franchise's designated Next Big Thing, the arm that would help rescue the Mets. Nothing seemed too small to scrutinize.

"It definitely is more calmed down," said Wheeler, whose profile this spring has fallen behind that of 21-year-old sensation Noah Syndergaard.

Not that Wheeler minds. Of the Mets' pitching triumvirate, which includes Syndergaard and Matt Harvey, Wheeler might be the most low-key. But he has hardly faded into the background. In many ways, his development has never been more important.

If the Mets intend to take their great leap forward, it will likely begin with Wheeler, 23, who enters his first big-league season with designs of starting on Opening Day.

Lefty Jonathon Niese remains the front-runner for the honor, but a shoulder fatigue issue has slowed his progress in spring training. Tuesday, Terry Collins said the door might be open for Wheeler.

"With our situation right now, hell, he may be the Opening Day starter," Collins said.

Among the Mets' three promising arms, Wheeler is the only one who will be with the team from start to finish. Harvey is recovering from elbow surgery that will sideline him until September. And Syndergaard likely won't be called up until midseason.

That leaves Wheeler, who has the stuff to lead the rotation. In his Grapefruit League debut this season, a 6-2 victory over the Astros, Wheeler looked the part.

He needed only 40 pitches to toss three scoreless innings, a sign of progress from his rookie season, when marathon innings became the norm. His fastball topped out at 96 mph. And as Collins noted, Wheeler showed improved feel with his curveball and more confidence with his changeup.

The result was a tidy tuneup. Wheeler surrendered just two hits and struck out three. But most importantly, the outing more closely resembled his own ideal. As a farmhand with both the Giants and the Mets, Wheeler was taught to value efficiency. His goal was to record outs in three pitches or fewer.

"I've had my times throughout different seasons that I've been able to just get guys three pitches or less for a stretch of the time," Wheeler said. "But last year really didn't go so well in that part."

Wheeler went 7-5 with a 3.42 ERA in 17 starts after joining the team last June. But he often found himself chased from games thanks to soaring pitch counts. As a result, he entered the offseason with a clear goal.

"I was trying to attack guys, get ahead of them," Wheeler said. "That was the plan."

A year later, that plan may be easier to follow. Collins said Wheeler appears much more at ease, a product of familiarity. For now, Wheeler is content to work away from the spotlight, with Syndergaard on center stage.

"I told Noah if he needs any help with anything, I'm here for him, and I'm sure Harvey is, too," Wheeler said. "It's nice just to sort of sit back and watch."

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