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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Are Mets counting on Zack Wheeler a little too much?

Zack Wheeler #45 of the New York Mets

Zack Wheeler #45 of the New York Mets walks off the field after the top of the third inning against the Philadelphia Phillies during an MLB game at Citi Field in Flushing, New York on Tuesday, April 18, 2017. Photo Credit: Steven Ryan

As Zack Wheeler’s pitching odometer spun at a dizzying pace Tuesday night, Terry Collins was probably more relieved than concerned. With Wheeler reaching his expiration date by the fifth inning, clocking out at 99 pitches, Collins would be spared the postgame barbecue he endured involving Jacob deGrom over the weekend in Miami — the one that featured him on the grill.

The manager is entrusted to be the dugout guardian of the Mets’ fragile yet supremely talented rotation, and that responsibility puts him in some sticky spots, as he found himself with deGrom in Saturday’s irritating 5-4 loss to the Marlins. Rather than stay with a sizzling deGrom, fresh off striking out the side on 13 pitches in the seventh, Collins played it safe and deferred to the organization’s triple-digit mandate.

Freed from deGrom’s sorcery at 97 pitches, the Marlins rallied against the Mets’ beleaguered bullpen for a disturbing defeat that had a clearly steamed Sandy Alderson stomping around the visitors’ clubhouse afterward. Was it avoidable? That’s open to debate. Here in mid-April, the Mets’ official no-fly zone for their starters is 105 pitches, which doesn’t sound too outrageous.

But in deGrom’s case, Collins didn’t want to send him out for the eighth, only to retrieve him in the middle of the inning, if he stumbled too quickly. Maybe deGrom would have been fine. He appeared to be cruising in the seventh. But what if Collins pushed the envelope, got him to 107 or so to finish the eighth, and deGrom complained of shoulder soreness a day or two later? That’s a scenario Collins is trying to avoid at all costs, even by being a tad too conservative in some instances.

But Wheeler, coming off a two-year rehab stint, was allowed to throw 99 pitches Tuesday night (seven strikeouts) in only his third start — presumably to get him through five innings and, with the Mets up 2-1, a shot at the victory. That represented a fairly big leap from the 85 in his previous start and the 80 in his April 7 opener.

Among the Mets’ starters, Wheeler is the one that requires the most care. He’s supposedly limited to 125-130 innings this season. But as Wheeler demonstrated Tuesday night, not all innings are created equal when you average nearly 20 pitches for each on a particular night.

And that’s nothing new for Wheeler. Merely part of his DNA. But if the Mets can’t push the members of this elite rotation past the sixth inning on a consistent basis, their value depreciates during the first month or two as the bullpen cracks under the weight of an ever-expanding workload. Fernando Salas, Hansel Robles and Jerry Blevins each made their ninth appearance Tuesday night in only 14 games. Jerry Blevins already has pitched in eight.

The Mets’ kid-glove treatment of the rotation, however, has been extra sensitive this season due to the sudden lack of depth. After a winter of believing they’d have seven top-caliber starters, that was cut to five during the final week of spring training when both Seth Lugo and Steven Matz were sidelined with arm injuries.

Lugo was diagnosed with a small UCL tear that he hopes doesn’t require surgery. As for Matz, his problem depends on whom you ask. The Mets maintain their doctors have not discovered anything structurally wrong with Matz’s left arm, but the former Ward Melville star told reporters earlier this month that he has a flexor tendon strain — as diagnosed by his own outside doctor not affiliated with the team.

Both Lugo and Matz are scheduled to test their arms Wednesday with a light throwing program from 75 feet, but a timetable for either one remains cloudy. By now, Alderson knows better than to venture out on that plank. When pushed on the possibility of Matz returning by the end of May, however, the GM tried to be optimistic.

“It’s possible,” Alderson said, then added, “question mark.”

For Matz, there’s no other way to punctuate a sentence. The Mets have not wavered from their March determination that Matz’s arm is fine, and are moving forward now based on “the absence of symptoms,” meaning that he’s not currently experiencing any discomfort.

Maybe it’s a start. And in the Mets’ ultra-protective mindset, small steps forward are preferable to more setbacks.

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