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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Impressive debut for Zack Wheeler

Zack Wheeler delivers a pitch in the first

Zack Wheeler delivers a pitch in the first inning of the second game of a doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves. (June 18, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

ATLANTA - Matt Harvey didn't sound too interested in being anybody's teacher, mentor or confidant in the hours leading up to Zack Wheeler's major-league debut Tuesday night.

And no one dared to suggest to Harvey that he was the warm-up act, even if that's how yesterday's doubleheader had been breathlessly hyped. The name Matt or Harvey didn't fit in the cleverly designed "Zack to the Future'' headline on the back page of this publication.

But Wheeler learned a lot by watching Harvey persevere through the late innings of a no-hit bid that almost went horribly wrong. Lessons on how to deal with the challenges of pitching for these Mets, from negligible run support to defensive ineptitude to the perils of handing a lead to a combustible bullpen.

Harvey is used to it by now, and he got the Mets just far enough with a 13-strikeout performance to wind up barely pocketing his first victory in a month. Like it or not, Harvey was setting an example for Wheeler -- if not a lofty bar as well -- and the rookie did a pretty good job trying to match him with six scoreless innings of his own in the Mets' 6-1 win.

"I really paid attention to Harvey's game because he's a hard thrower like me,'' said Wheeler, his jersey soaked from a beer shower by teammates. "I went into it knowing I'm good enough to be up here.''

Wheeler has the talent. The Mets, well, their lineup resembled the Vegas one Wheeler had left behind: Collin Cowgill, Josh Satin, Juan Lagares, Anthony Recker. And it probably didn't help Wheeler's confidence much when the Mets began kicking the ball around in the third.

But Wheeler never looked fazed. Rather than wilt under a rapidly escalating pitch count, his confidence appeared to grow with it. The Braves harassed him with baserunners in every inning, and Wheeler escaped each time with his 97-mph fastball.

"I was really impressed by the way he competed,'' Terry Collins said. "That's what the stars do. The ace pitchers reach down inside and get the big outs.''

We'd been led to believe that Wheeler was the skittish up-and-comer to Harvey's "mature beyond his years'' persona. After watching how Wheeler handled his debut, maybe we didn't give him enough credit.

Collins suggested Wheeler would be like some restless bronco snorting and pacing during the doubleheader's intermission. "We'll make sure he's not getting out of control when we open the corral door,'' the manager said.

For Wheeler, it had to be quite the adrenaline rush. Having grown up roughly 30 miles away, he had a crowd of friends and family here, with Chipper Jones, a childhood idol, seated next to his parents in the second row behind the backstop.

So when the corral, um bullpen, door did swing open, what followed was predictable as Wheeler had command issues early. Even though the Mets were scoreless for the first six innings, Wheeler stifled the Braves until Recker ripped a two-run homer in the seventh that felt as unlikely as Chipper leading a "Let's Go Mets'' chant.

For all Harvey did to upstage Wheeler, it didn't seem that way by the long day's end. Harvey surrendered only three singles and lost his no-hit bid on Jason Heyward's freaky roller in the seventh. He was never more dominant and threw the season's fastest pitch, a 100.85-mph heater to fan Heyward in the first.

But there is something special about a debut, be it the Met or the Mets, and Wheeler's was 23 months in the making. He didn't disappoint. Going forward, however, he'll need to maintain the steely composure that Harvey has armored himself with.

"Everybody's excited about Zack and the future,'' Harvey said, "but we've got 100 games to go here. We're trying to bounce back and win as many games as we can and that starts with my focus and my approach. I've got to keep my head down and keep going.''

Welcome to the grind, Zack.


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