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Zack Wheeler to start Grapefruit League opener for Mets

Mets pitcher Zach Wheeler poses for a portrait

Mets pitcher Zach Wheeler poses for a portrait on Wednesday Feb. 21, 2018 during photo day at Port St. Lucie, FL. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — The Mets announced their rotation Wednesday for the first three games of the Grapefruit League season. Kicking things off? None other than Zack Wheeler, whose audition to win a starting spot begins Friday against the Braves at First Data Field.

Getting the ball first in a spring-training game doesn’t usually mean all that much in February, but this should carry extra impact for Wheeler, who seems to rank as the Mets’ No. 6 starter. The Mets also could switch him to the bullpen at some point, but letting him prepare for Friday as a starter, and warm up as one, at least gives Wheeler an optimum chance to pitch well. When Mickey Callaway was asked Wednesday where Wheeler fits on the staff, he did his best to keep the pitcher’s head free of distraction.

“He’s definitely a starting pitcher,” Callaway said. “For us to be the best possible team we can be, we have to have him be a starter, and he’s going to go out there and do everything he can to win this competition that we have going on.”

After Wheeler, Seth Lugo will start Saturday against the Cardinals and Robert Gsellman will go Sunday vs. the Marlins.

Notice a trend? Each of those first three could be earmarked for Triple-A Las Vegas as rotation insurance, or bullpen help, barring injuries. The presumptive No. 2 starter, Noah Syndergaard, threw a live batting practice session Wednesday and Callaway’s primary goal will be to keep his Thor persona in check before the regular season begins.

“He’s a big boy with a good arm, and when you get a guy like that, sometimes it is hard to reel it back and his 80 percent looks like a lot of guys’ 100 percent,” Callaway said. “We just want him to make sure he’s not overdoing it at any time.”

Extra bases

Don’t read too much into Juan Lagares frequently leading off in spring training, and possibly for Friday’s opener. Callaway said he wants to get him as many at-bats as possible to work on his new elevated swing . . . The Mets, along with the rest of the MLB clubs, will wear the caps of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High baseball team during Friday’s Grapefruit League opener. The caps will be autographed and auctioned off in support of those affected by the shooting tragedy at the Parkland, Florida, school.

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