WEST PALM BEACH − The first time, Zack Wheeler almost made himself sick thinking about getting back on a big league mound, even if it was just a spring training game. After two seasons without facing major league hitters, after suffering setback after setback with his surgically-repaired right elbow, Wheeler said he felt dizzy before climbing up on the mound for his first Grapefruit League start last week.
Thursday, it was just another day at work.
“Once you get out there, even last time, all that stuff leaves your head and you come back to the idea that you belonged here,” Wheeler said “You’ve been here before.”
Wheeler looked like he belonged back in the Mets rotation on Thursday. The righthander, who had Tommy John surgery in March 2015, looked “free and easy” in his delivery, according to a scout watching. His fastball touched 97 miles per hour several times and it sat between 94-95 as he threw 50 pitches, 30 for strikes. He had life on the fastball and his breaking balls had “a nice edge,” the scout said.
“Very good stuff,” Terry Collins said. “The ball really came out of his hand today. Good rotation on his breaking ball. Had a good changeup.
“He’s coming along real fast,” the Mets manager said.
Wheeler went 2.1 innings, allowing two runs on three hits, including a solo home run to Bryce Harper in the Mets’ 3-1 loss to the Nationals at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. He struck out two, both looking on offspeed pitches, and walked one. Realizing he belongs back in the majors, that he can pitch at this level and his elbow is fine was a huge hurdle for Wheeler to overcome in his long comeback.
Now, he has the smaller obstacles to refine his pitches to get ready.
“I was just not as sharp as I could be around the plate, fastball wise. Off-speed is good for me right now. Everything is sharp, everything is where I want it. Curveball, slider, everything is breaking like I want it,” Wheeler said. “The fastball just needs a little fine tuning.”
With Wheeler coming through his first big tests this spring with apparent ease, the Mets have to decide how to use him this season. He reached 185 innings in 2014, his last before Tommy John surgery, but he will have an innings limit expected to be in “the low 100s,” for this season.
So the Mets have debated how they plan to use those innings this year.
Wheeler said he has not been consulted about when and where he will play this season. Collins would not reveal the Mets’ thinking on Wheeler.
“I am not addressing that right now,”Collins said. “I really can’t. We certainly don’t know what’s going to happen. We haven’t made any decisions yet. To be truly honest we haven’t had any discussions about Zack Wheeler.”
A Mets source, however, said that the idea of using him in the bullpen, which had been floated by the front office this winter, was shot down quickly this spring. Even though he has shown that he can bounce back fine after appearances, it is likely the Mets will start Wheeler in extended spring, where they can manage his workload and “keep those bullets for later” in the major league season, the source said.
Wheeler, who threw just 17 pitches in a minor league rehab game last year, is cautiously hopeful about his return this year. He is also realistic, knowing the innings limit will affect how the Mets use him this season.
“Honestly it’s up to them, what they want to do with me. Whatever works, I guess. I don’t know,” Wheeler said when asked about being ready for Opening Day. I’d like to go up there and pitch, that’s up to them. There is an innings limit, whether they want to use them up early or late, who knows what.”
What Wheeler showed Thursday, however, certainly makes it hard to imagine him not playing a role in the Mets rotation at some point this summer. But Thursday, Wheeler was not in a rush to think about “down the stretch” just yet.
“I’m honestly ready to pitch right now whether that be bullpen, starter or who knows what,” Wheeler said. “I don’t know. I’m ready to go as of right now. It’s up to them, though. Whatever they say, I’m fine with it.”
Two starts into spring training, the only thing Wheeler is sure about is that he’s back. He belongs pitching in the majors this season. He’ll just let the Mets figure out when.
Published at Fri, 17 Mar 2017 05:19:22 +0000