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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Mets' Zack Wheeler shaky as potential fifth starter

New York Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler throws

New York Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler throws in the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the New York Mets, Friday, March 10, 2017, in Kissimmee, Fla. Credit: AP / John Raoux

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.

For everyone upset over the preferential treatment the Mets are giving to a certain former quarterback because his name is Tim Tebow, we ask you this: What about Zack Wheeler still being included in the competition for the fifth starter’s job?

It’s becoming pretty clear that Wheeler, after Wednesday’s scattershot three innings, should be in third place right now, behind Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo, two bright, young arms that helped save last season. But Wheeler’s pedigree, and the occasional sizzle of a fastball that touched 97 mph once in 66 pitches against the Marlins, is forcing the Mets to keep him in this race, at least publicly.

“I think Zack could be a special case,” Terry Collins said.

For a guy who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2014, it’s been a long, frustrating climb back from Tommy John surgery, and Wheeler has done an admirable job reaching this point. The Mets just can’t be certain of what Wheeler is, or what he ever will be. Because at the moment, he doesn’t look all that different from the pre-op Wheeler, a hard thrower with knee-busting breaking pitches, but with little command of where any of them are going.

Maybe Wheeler just needs a few more outings to polish things up. But there shouldn’t be any rush to cram him into this rotation, not when the Mets have more reliable choices in Gsellman and Lugo. Wheeler remains too much of a wild card, so what’s the harm in keeping him down in Port St. Lucie for extended spring training, where he can get the extra reps he apparently needs.

Wheeler, at times, has been skittish during this comeback, perhaps subconsciously waiting for the next thing to go wrong. It’s only natural after what he’s been through. And Wednesday’s messy performance came off like a haymaker to the chin, denting the memory of his encouraging start last time out against the Nationals. He allowed four runs in three innings, including homers to Tyler Moore and Ramon Cabrera, walked three, hit a batter and struck out one.

“It felt good, I guess,” Wheeler said. “It’s not the results I wanted, obviously, but it’s another step forward.”

On the calendar maybe. But other than pushing his endurance a little further, upping his pitch count didn’t make them any prettier. Summoned for the sixth inning, to follow an erratic Steven Matz, Wheeler required 26 pitches to get three outs. In the seventh, he opened impressively, whiffing Matt den Dekker on three pitches, then needed only two — both strikes — to get an infield pop. But a five-pitch walk to Moises Sierra followed before Wheeler escaped with a groundout. So why was Wheeler able to lock in better for the seventh?

“I couldn’t tell you, man,” Wheeler said. “I wish I could.”

So which Wheeler would show up for the eighth? The answer was deflating. Despite his best velocity that inning, ranging from 95-96, the Marlins took him deep twice, with Moore hammering a 96-mph heater. Was it good that Wheeler could maintain that stamina so deep into the game? Absolutely. But it makes no sense to get caught up in radar-gun readings without the command to go along with them. A poorly located fastball, at almost any speed, will still wind up off the wall — or over it.

“I thought he threw all right,” Collins said.

According to Collins, Wheeler also remains a candidate for the bullpen, even though the manager said using him in Wednesday’s unfamiliar scenario, entering in the sixth, may have hurt his effectiveness. We can’t see any way Wheeler is groomed for the pen in time for Opening Day. Plus, Collins and pitching coach Dan Warthen have said in the past that Wheeler doesn’t bounce back well enough to be deployed in a relief role.

Deciding on a fifth starter doesn’t have to happen tomorrow. But from what we’ve witnessed, and with Lugo mowing down All-Stars under more intense, real-game conditions during the WBC, that discussion should move forward without Wheeler, who’s only penciled in for 120 innings this season anyway.

It’s no slight. Just a deserving nod to the other starters not named Wheeler.

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