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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Zack Wheeler experiencing growing pains

Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler sits in the

Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler sits in the dugout after being taken out of the game against the Washington Nationals during the fifth inning. (June 30, 2013) Credit: AP

Our first impulse was to criticize the Mets for roping off Zack Wheeler like the Mona Lisa before yesterday's Fourth of July matinee at Citi Field.

Although it's a no-no to conduct pregame interviews with pitchers on the day they start, Wheeler wasn't scheduled to take the mound until the following night in Milwaukee. Plus, Terry Collins basically implored reporters to speak with the Mets' uber-prospect during his own morning media chat.

"If you get a chance today," Collins said, "ask him how he liked his side [session]. I'd be interested to see what he says."

So with Wheeler camped out at his locker, just down the row from a life-size poster of a grinning Matt Harvey, there seemed to be an opening for an interview. But a Mets official stepped in and expressed a desire to spare Wheeler any media interaction.

The Mets are among the most cooperative teams when it comes to media access, so this was surprising. Ultimately, they relented, and Wheeler stood up for a 106-second interrogation that turned into a much bigger deal than it had to be.

That was mostly because of Wheeler's teammates, not the media. Why underperforming reliever Brandon Lyon -- who was designated for assignment after the game -- felt it necessary to mock the proceedings was a mystery. That the respected veteran LaTroy Hawkins chose to grab a tape recorder, stick his hand into the circle and pretend to be a reporter was just silly and stupid.

As soon as Hawkins intervened, Wheeler clammed up, clearly self-conscious about what was happening, even though it was exactly what is supposed to happen in a major-league clubhouse, especially in New York. Reporters ask questions of players, who choose to answer them or not.

Some are better at handling this relationship than others, but it's all part of the learning curve, one that suddenly has become Matterhorn-steep for Wheeler. And that's OK. He seemed fine answering questions about Wednesday's side session; it was his two teammates who made him uncomfortable, which then cut things short.

As for that side session, the between-starts throw day that lets pitchers recalibrate while on the mound, Wheeler didn't sound too pleased by the adjustments he tried to make. Location has been a problem, along with tipping his pitches, and it was unclear what progress he made.

"Going into a game when you're struggling a little bit, and your side is horrible, it sucks,'' Wheeler said. He described the session as "really just a wasted bullpen."

What that means for Friday night's's start, his fourth in the majors, is difficult to predict. Some pitchers have great side sessions and get bombed the next time out. Others are able to tweak a thing or two and see instant results. Occasionally, it's meaningless.

For Wheeler, it all comes down to better command of his pitches, and that doesn't happen overnight. But the pressure to succeed is only going to increase with each start -- unfairly or not -- and that can be difficult for a 23-year-old saddled with the burden of being compared to Harvey every time he picks up a ball.

The Mets decided to throw Wheeler into the deep end of the pool, and now it's their job to make sure he doesn't sink. After three starts, he has a 5.06 ERA and nearly as many walks (10) as strikeouts (13) in 16 innings. But the decision-makers believe he needs to continue his education here rather than in Vegas.

"He's still got good enough stuff to get outs," Collins said. "So let's not get drastic and try to be somebody different. Let's just stay with what we got and eventually it's going to start coming into play. We saw that with Matt last year and now look at what we got. Look at the animal that's out there.

"I know it's hard here because the expectations for this kid are outta sight, and in a year or so, they should be, 'cause he's got that kind of ability to make things special."

Everyone just has to remember the road to special is not always smooth. No need to make it any bumpier than it has to be.

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