JUPITER, Fla. — The forgotten man stood with his back to the wall, water dripping from the ice wrap coiled tight around his once-vulnerable right elbow. He still was cooling off from the closest thing to a big-league game he’s experienced in more than two years.
Zack Wheeler knew what was at stake on Monday. Common sense made it clear. So after tossing five shutout innings in the Mets’ 5-0 win over the Marlins, the righthander could take solace. His bid for a spot in the starting rotation was his best outing of the spring.
“I knew today was a big day for me,” said Wheeler, who hasn’t pitched since 2014 because of a bumpy road back from Tommy John surgery. “There’s not really much more to say. I did the best that I could. We’ll see. It’s up to them what they want to do, where they want to go and how they want to handle it.”
Wheeler, 26, flashed the hallmarks that once made him part of the first wave in the Mets’ pitching-centric plan to bring the franchise back to respectability. He topped out at 97 mph in his 70-pitch outing, with his fastball sitting in the range of 94-95 mph. He commanded the pitch, a step forward from his previous outings, which he treated as a way to knock off the rust after two years of inactivity.
This outing was different for Wheeler. This was not simply getting in his work, but securing a big-league spot on Opening Day.
The 26-year-old began spring training on the fringes of a spot in the starting rotation. He ended it dueling head-to-head with Seth Lugo, who allowed four runs in 4 1⁄3 innings in a 6-0 loss to the Nationals in the Mets’ other split-squad game.
“Today I showed them, ‘Hey, I’ve still got it,’ ” said Wheeler, who struck out three and walked two against a Marlins lineup stacked with regulars. “When I need to lock in, I can lock in. I think today proved that I am ready. But like I said, whether I start out the season or come in later, it doesn’t matter to me.”
General manager Sandy Alderson walked alongside assistant GM John Ricco. As they exited the stadium, neither had much interest in expanding on the decision that they face on Tuesday, when members of the organization will confer about the rotation.
“We’ve got to consider a lot, what’s best for the player, what’s best for the organization,” manager Terry Collins said. “As I told you guys before, this is not a time to experiment. This is a time to win games.”
The Mets have plenty to consider.
While Wheeler looks closer to what he was before surgery, he has not pitched in two years. He’s also saddled with a limit of 120 innings, a complication that he said “puts pressure on them” and “puts pressure on me” and is “not a fun thing to go through.”
He could wind up in extended spring training or in the bullpen, though there is hesitation from some in the organization about such a role.
Lugo possesses the flexibility of pitching in either the rotation or out of the bullpen. His credentials stem from his clutch performance in the second half of last year. When injuries crushed the rotation, Lugo stepped in and withstood the heat of a pennant race. It hasn’t been forgotten.
And of course, there is the status of Steven Matz. His tender elbow created an opening in the rotation, and a quick recovery could just as easily close that vacancy.
For two years, Wheeler’s weary body held final say over his fate, refusing to relinquish its grip on the future. Even early in spring training, a tender elbow invited questions about his health. But as the season nears, Wheeler has reclaimed a measure of control, and now perhaps a spot in one of the best starting rotations in baseball.
“It’s not going to make me lose any sleep,” he said. “I just want to pitch, I just want to be healthy. I’m happy to be out here throwing the baseball and bouncing back, basically.”