Heralded as the next big thing in 2013, Zack Wheeler almost became a forgotten man in 2014. Between the attention Matt Harvey drew with his absence and the attention Jacob deGrom drew with his Rookie of the Year campaign, Wheeler seemingly faded into the background with a comparatively pedestrian opening act. But the product of the Carlos Beltran trade did just enough to remind Mets fans what they got so excited about at the trade deadline in 2011. This Amazin’ Ten story is about when he reminded them he could still emerge as The Ace of the staff.
Jun 19, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler (45) throws a pitch during the first inning against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
#6 – Wheeler’s Beach Party (June 19)
One year and one day earlier, Zack Wheeler made his big-league debut in the back end of a doubleheader to remember. His next 16 starts in 2013 resulted in a mid-3.00 ERA, but his first 14 of 2014 revealed a regression of sorts: a 4.38 ERA, location problems, and an intense struggle to get beyond or even to six innings. Whereas Harvey had dazzled in his early career and deGrom would do the same, Wheeler did little to resemble more than a mid-level starting pitcher.
Wheeler was ordinary, that is, until one Thursday night in Miami. The Mets were coming off a significant win in St. Louis and prepared for a weekend set against the Marlins. And Zack Wheeler was ready to celebrate the anniversary of his major-league debut in style.
Zack received an immediate confidence booster in the form of a David Wright swing in the top of the first inning. After Daniel Murphy had erased Eric Young on a 4-6-3 double play, Wright worked a 2-2 count against Miami starter Andrew Heaney. Heaney’s fifth pitch was a fastball – his third straight – and the Captain made him pay with a rocket straight to the hideous Marlins Park home run sculpture. David rounded the bases for his sixth homer of the year, and New York was beneficiary of a quick 1-0 lead.
It was as if the instant advantage turned that hill of dirt into Cloud Nine. Wheeler methodically mowed down Marlin after Marlin the whole night through. He struck out Giancarlo Stanton to end the first. He induced an unassisted double play in the second. He retired the side in the third and fourth and produced twin-killers in both the fifth and sixth. After that third double play of the night, it began to dawn on Mets fans that Wright’s solo shot might be enough.
That’s not to say a couple more runs would have been nice, but Heaney and company were sending the visitors back to the dugout just as effectively as Wheeler. Wright grounded into a double play to end the sixth. Runners on second and third with one out in the seventh produced nothing. Young misread a shallow popup in the eighth and got doubled off. It was almost as if the Mets themselves had a feeling that single run would be enough.
Wheeler did not disappoint. He sat down three in a row in the seventh and three in a row in the eighth. After striking out Jared Saltalamacchia and forcing Adeiny Hechavarria to pop out to start the ninth, Zack had retired 10 in a row.
But pinch-hitter Reed Johnson refused to become the 11th, singling on a 1-2 curveball to put the tying run on base. With 108 pitches to his starter’s name, and with memory of Dillon Gee faltering in the exact same position one year and two days earlier, Terry Collins elected to let Zack Wheeler stay in the game.
Jun 19, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler (right) greets catcher Taylor Teagarden (left) after defeating the Miami Marlins 1-0 at Marlins Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
The Pride of East Paulding High School rewarded his manager’s faith by forcing Rafael Furcal to line out to center field on his 111th pitch. Wheeler had sustained Cloud Nine for the full nine innings. The result: a three-hit, one-walk, eight-strikeout gem for his first career complete-game shutout. Thanks to the trio of double plays, he faced just 28 batters, or one over the minimum.
The Mets took three of four from the Marlins that weekend, and save for a shellacking against Oakland in his next outing, Zack Wheeler turned a corner after his fun in the sun. In his final 16 starts of the year, Wheeler went 8-3 with a 2.71 ERA, striking out 96 in 96.1 innings and keeping his walks down.
While he still needs to work on eating up innings – he only went seven frames one more time – Zack Wheeler has established himself as an upper-level starter. He may not be The Ace of the Harvey or deGrom variety, but in a rotation like New York’s, he doesn’t need to be. If the Mets can get number-two-like production from someone who may end up as their number-four man by the end of 2015, that pitcher’s mound may end up resembling Cloud Nine full-time.
June 19: the 5th most Amazin’ game of 2014. On Friday, we’ll visit another top-of-the-line pitching performance in the #4 entry of our countdown.
Amazin’ Ten of 2014