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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Zack Wheeler's debut full of fanfare, unlike trio of starters for Cardinals

Michael Wacha of the St. Louis Cardinals delivers

Michael Wacha of the St. Louis Cardinals delivers against the Mets. (June 11, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty

The Mets knew Zack Wheeler would join their rotation at some point during this season. That was the easy part.

Figuring out an approximate date was more complicated. What about the Super-2 deadline? Where should Wheeler's major-league debut take place? In Flushing? Or as far away from Citi Field as possible?

And if on the road, which team would be the best fit? Should it even matter for a prized young pitcher like Wheeler?

The Cardinals don't think so, and they've had some recent experience with this subject. A lot of it, actually. St. Louis already has used four rookie starters this season, and three of them -- John Gast, Tyler Lyons, Michael Wacha -- have made their major-league debuts this year.

"They've just got to go out there and pitch," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "If you try to create a perfect atmosphere, you're probably going to be waiting forever. What we do try is simplify the amount of input and simplify what the expectation level is -- just do what you've been doing, keep it simple, and really not give them any more information except follow along with your catcher.

"It's a simple plan that seems to give them a bit of comfort. But the distractions are going to be there. This is something they've dreamed about since they first picked up a baseball."

Gast, 24, faced the Mets on May 14 at Busch Stadium and earned the win despite allowing four runs in six innings.

Lyons, 25, beat the Padres in San Diego on May 22 after allowing one run in seven innings.

Wacha, who at 21 is two years younger than Wheeler, debuted with considerably more fanfare than either of those two back on May 30 at Busch. He opened with a strikeout, retired the first 13 Royals, and despite seven strong innings -- one run, two hits, six strikeouts -- wound up with a no-decision in a game that didn't end until 3:30 a.m. because of a lengthy rain delay.

That ruined Wacha's plans for a postgame celebratory dinner with the 50 or so friends and family members who came from Iowa and Texas to watch his debut. Otherwise, the Cardinals made sure there were few other unscripted events.

Wacha, who began the season at Triple-A Memphis, heard he was getting promoted on a Tuesday, did a news conference Wednesday at Busch and then settled in for his Thursday start.

The Cardinals handled the ticket requests; Wacha tracked his family's travels via phone calls and texts but didn't see anyone until afterward. He knew they were all in the stands, but didn't know where.

"I felt like there was a lot of hype," Wacha said this week at Citi. "The kind of hype that could easily distract you, I guess. But I was able to shut it all out. It was a lot of fun pitching at home for the first time and having the fans there. They're all supporting you. The main thing is just trying not to let it all get to my head."


This is more about the psyche of a 23-year-old future star than his pitching skills. Just about everyone who has watched Wheeler with Triple-A Las Vegas believes that he has the ability to make the jump. But the temptation for the Mets is to try to tailor Wheeler's schedule to maximize his chance for success.

Unlike the NL Central-leading Cardinals -- who were forced into these call-ups by injuries to Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook -- the Mets have been able to handpick a spot for Wheeler due to no immediate rotation need and zero concern about playoff positioning. The Cards felt pressed into action.

"In the end, these are games you've got to play," general manager John Mozeliak said. "Whether it's in the St. Louis environment -- which I think has a lot of positives but you could argue about it being a little more stressful -- or like Lyons in San Diego, which is a pitcher-friendly park and I think he took great advantage of that.

"I think it's all about the preparation that these guys do. When we're deciding to make a player move, it's usually out of necessity and not thinking about the timing of something, like the arbitration clock and also home or road."

The Mets' lack of urgency probably hasn't helped the decision-making. Their primary concern was the Super-2 deadline, and now that they have no worries about owing Wheeler an extra year of arbitration, it eliminated one roadblock. Initially, they had targeted this weekend, which featured an easier foe in the Cubs and the chance for Wheeler to debut a safe distance from the Atlanta suburbs where he grew up. A likely attendance bump might also have been nice.

But Turner Field eventually won out, and with Wheeler getting the nightcap of Tuesday's doubleheader against the Braves, he'll have an even bigger personal cheering section than Wacha did in St. Louis. How that affects him remains to be seen.

"It's an away game for us -- it might be a home game for him," Terry Collins said. "You try to set up as nice and as comfortable a routine as you can, but this is an exception to the rule. This kid's going to have to learn how to deal with this. He might as well get used to it, be it in Atlanta or anyplace else.

"He's a special case. Even though we kind of like the fact that it's on the road, it's still going to be a major event."

The bottom line is that a team can only control so much. Ultimately, the training wheels have to come off, and the kid prospect either picks up speed or crashes.

"You can think of a thousand different things that can get in the way from them getting their job done," Matheny said, "but that's what differentiates whether or not they can do this. And you can't insulate them from these sorts of things.

"That's really what this business is about -- it's a matter of compartmentalizing what you got going on on the outside and then when you get here, getting into your cocoon and doing your thing."


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