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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Zack Wheeler's injury another wake-up call for Mets

Zack Wheeler sits in the dugout after the

Zack Wheeler sits in the dugout after the fifth inning of a game against the Washington Nationals at Citi Field on Thursday, April 3, 2014. Credit: Jim McIsaac

FORT MYERS, Fla. - From what we could tell, Matt Harvey left the mound in one piece Monday at JetBlue Park. He never once clutched his arm, he didn't take a comebacker off the shin and there were no postgame MRIs scheduled.

Again, as far as we know, he's OK.

"Today was pretty successful," Harvey said after a smooth four innings against the Red Sox. "Definitely a positive."

We'd tend to agree. A scout had his fastball at 93 to 97 mph, his slider was sharp and Harvey drew raves from Dustin Pedroia and Big Papi. Everything looked fine. All according to plan.

But we're making no promises. How can we? Not after Harvey Day was obliterated before he even threw a pitch when the Mets announced that Zack Wheeler likely is headed for Tommy John surgery.

How is that possible, you ask? We were sort of wondering the same thing.

Wheeler complained of a sore elbow last week, but the Mets told us this was a minor problem, that the MRIs were precautionary.

Turns out that Wheeler, with the Mets' help, apparently was hiding a serious elbow risk, one the team was very concerned about for most of last season.

Sandy Alderson explained Monday that Wheeler's elbow situation was significant enough to be the real reason some bullpen sessions between starts were skipped. Wheeler also had two more MRIs during the offseason and had platelet-rich plasma injections in November to combat what the team described as tendinitis.

This is not routine protocol for a healthy pitcher. For example, the Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka, who suffered a tiny ulnar collateral ligament tear last July, was treated with PRP injections to see if that would help keep the elbow intact. So far, through rehab and cautious supervision, the non-surgical strategy has worked for Tanaka.

Wheeler was not as fortunate. But was this a case of luck or mismanagement? Again, it's hard to know for sure.

Alderson also revealed Monday for the first time that the Mets knew they would have to treat Wheeler's elbow with special care this season, perhaps figuring it was only a matter of time before the UCL gave out.

Alderson had described Wheeler's elbow as a "chronic" issue but one that could be "managed," just as it was in 2014. That diagnosis changed when Wheeler complained of a more serious problem last week and had to be scratched from his start.

"The area of pain had increased in size," Alderson said. He later added, "This kind of result was not totally unexpected."

These days, it shouldn't be. But we were led to believe Wheeler wasn't in the danger zone. And the way this whole ordeal went down should make everyone worried about how all of these promising young arms are handled, especially the next two in line, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz.

Matz, 23, already has had TJ surgery and needed more than two years because of a bumpy rehab. As for Syndergaard, the Mets should keep their fingers crossed. Both have profiles not all that different from Wheeler's -- hard throwers, with fastballs sitting in the mid-to-upper 90s.

Maybe Wheeler was too far along that doomed UCL path by the end of last season. The Mets say they didn't see any changes in the MRIs from November to January, so the team figured it was something Wheeler would have to pitch with -- until he couldn't.

"Although we're unhappy we're not going to have him this season," Alderson said, "in some ways, long term, this will be beneficial to Zack and to the Mets as well."

Maybe. Despite the alarming frequency, TJ surgery remains a major medical procedure. To this point, Harvey has been a model patient, and there is every indication he will be as dominant as he was during his All-Star season in 2013. But this Wheeler saga reminds us that the best-laid plans can blow up in our faces.

"Coming into today, I thought we had a rotation second to none," said Terry Collins, who said he was unaware of Wheeler's fragile elbow.

That optimism cooled in a hurry. And Collins -- along with the rest of us -- should know that fearing the worst probably is the best course of action.


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