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Wheeler fortune: Zack spins gem in MLB debut

Relaxed Mets prospect throws six shutout innings with parents, friends in stands

ATLANTA -- As Matt Harvey completed his final work assignment of the day, debriefing around two dozen media members -- a larger-than-normal contingent -- following his afternoon start, Zack Wheeler sat quietly five locker stalls away. If the crush of clubhouse visitors bothered him, he did not show it, leaning back in his chair and thumbing through a cell phone.

He was clearly not agitated at the prospect of his first big league start. Nor was he ornery, as Harvey tends to be before outings. He was simply relaxed, a big leaguer, one of hundreds across the country doing their thing.

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A big leaguer. If it were not apparent at that moment, Wheeler confirmed it a few hours later, striking out seven Braves en route to a 6-1 victory at Turner Field. It was not a spotless outing -- far from it, actually, considering the five walks he issued and the four hits he allowed. Nor was it the blustery display of dominance that Harvey provided in his own debut last summer.

It was simply a start, and a good one at that -- a start to a game, to a season, to a potentially special career.

"Just like any other Mets fan, I was eager to see what all the hype was about," third baseman David Wright said. "It gives you a good glimpse of possibly what could be in the very near future."

It was only fitting that Wheeler's day began with Harvey dominating, striking out a career-high 13 batters and hanging on for a Game 1 victory. Since the moment the Mets acquired Wheeler from the Giants in 2011, he and Harvey have been linked as peers.

Two elite pitching prospects aged one year apart, Wheeler and Harvey rose through the system in close proximity to each other. They lockered next to each other this spring, per the request of manager Terry Collins. And they enjoyed similar levels of success along the way.

"In my mind, when I came up, this was always where I wanted to be," Harvey said. "I'm sure it was the same for him and any other pitcher."

But outside of an upper-90s fastball and power repertoire -- more on that later -- they shared little in common throughout their journey. Harvey, a Connecticut native, lives in Manhattan. He is cosmopolitan. He seems to enjoy the spotlight -- he is dating a supermodel, after all -- and his personality carries an edge.

Wheeler grew up in rural Georgia, where he still lives with one of his brothers. His prized possession is his pickup truck. He does not say much, coming off as friendly and polite whenever he does.

But on the mound, like Harvey, he seems to change.

In his sixth and final inning Tuesday, for example, Wheeler put two men on base with one out. He had just thrown his 94th pitch, had registered in the upper 90s with his fastball all night and was clearly one baserunner away from exiting the game amidst disappointment.

Here's what happened next: The rookie ran a two-strike count on slugger Dan Uggla before whiffing him on a 90-mph slider -- a pitch that actually caught quite a bit of plate. Then he popped up Chris Johnson to end the inning, walking off the field as his parents, according to several eyewitness accounts, grew emotional in the stands.

"It was a big time in the game," Wheeler said. "I was throwing strikes and just trying to battle through it."

It was a big time in his life, too -- a time that Wheeler has long envisioned, calling it "definitely a huge thing" and "definitely an experience." Thirty minutes from his hometown, with scores of friends and family in attendance, Wheeler gave everyone a glimpse at exactly why he is so well-regarded.

The Mets, in turn, offered a display of what this team can look like when everything breaks right.

"I'm very pleased with what I saw today," Collins said. "Certainly, [fans] are going to enjoy watching these two guys for a long time. They're going to be around and they're going to be in the same rotation. We've got two guys who can win some baseball games for you."


Meet the Mets
Zack Wheeler joined Dwight Gooden, Bobby Jones, Mike Pelfrey, Dillon Gee and Matt Harvey as a highly regarded pitching prospect to win his big league debut with the Mets.
Pitcher Date Opponent Site IP H R-ER BB SO Outcome
Nolan Ryan* 9-18-66 Astros Hou. 1 4 4-4 2 3 Lost
Tom Seaver 4-13-67 Pirates Shea 5 1/3 6 2-2 4 8 ND/ Mets won
Jerry Koosman* 9-17-67 Astros Hou. 7 6 2-2 5 2 ND/ Mets lost
Jon Matlack** 7-11-71 Reds Cin. 7 6 2-2 0 1 ND/ Mets lost
Tim Leary 4-12-81 Cubs Chi. 2 0 0-0 1 3 ND/Mets won
Ron Darling 9-06-83 Phillies Shea 6 1/3 5 1-1 1 6 Lost
Dwight Gooden 4-07-84 Astros Hou. 5 3 1-1 2 5 Won
Rick Aguilera* 6-16-85 Expos Mon. 4 1/3 6 6-6 5 1 Lost
Bobby Jones 8-14-93 Phillies Phi. 6 7 5-1 1 3 Won
Bill Pulsipher 6-17-95 Astros Shea 7 9 7-7 6 3 Lost
Jason Isringhausen 7-17-95 Cubs Chi. 7 2 2-2 2 6 ND/ Mets won
Paul Wilson 4-04-96 Cardinals Shea 6 6 3-3 2 6 ND/ Mets won
Octavio Dotel 6-26-99 Braves Atl. 4 1/3 5 6-6 5 3 Lost
Grant Roberts 7-27-00 Expos Shea 1 1/3 6 7-6 3 0 ND/ Mets won
Alay Soler 5-24-06 Phillies Shea 6 5 3-2 4 5 ND/ Mets won
Mike Pelfrey 7-08-06 Marlins Shea 5 3 3-2 4 3 Won
Dillon Gee 9-10-07 Nationals Was. 7 2 1-1 3 4 Won
Jonathon Niese 9-2-08 Brewers Mil. 3 7 5-5 4 2 ND/Mets lost
Matt Harvey 7-12-12 D-backs Ari. 5 1/3 3 0-0 3 11 Won
Zack Wheeler 6-18-13 Braves Atl. 6 4 0-0 5 7 Won
* Had pitched in relief previously
** Seaver lost the game in relief

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo.

New York Mets, Zack Wheeler