NEW YORK -- It goes down as another loss at a time when the Mets really could have used a win, a loss that Zack Wheeler might have prevented if he didn't throw the fastball that Daniel Murphy hit for a first-inning grand slam.
"Anytime you lose after putting the team down early, it's not fun," the Mets right-hander said after Sunday's 6-3 loss to the Nationals.
It may not have been fun, but in the overall story of Wheeler's career and even of his season, what happened Sunday wasn't that bad. What happened to Wheeler after the Murphy home run -- 22 batters faced, one hit, no runs -- was more than just a silver lining.
For a pitcher who missed two full Major League seasons after Tommy John surgery, Sunday's seven-inning performance was the best sign yet that he's back. More than that, it was an indication the post-surgery version of Wheeler can be better than the one the Mets saw before he got hurt.
"That's the best I've seen him throw the ball in a while," Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.
Forget for a moment that no one had seen Wheeler throw a ball in a while, because what Zimmerman said was true. Wheeler has come back from his long absence throwing more strikes and better strikes, which should allow him to pitch deeper into games more regularly than he ever did before.
"I watched a lot of baseball the two years I was gone," he said. "I learned a lot of things, watched a lot of guys pitch. The best guys go out there and go right after guys. I told myself when I got back that's what I was going to do.
"After that first inning, [this game] assured me that's where I have to be and that's where I can be."
Pre-surgery, Wheeler made 49 Major League starts and finished seven innings in only five of them. He made it through seven Sunday night even after a 25-pitch first inning, and even on a night when he felt his fastball command wasn't perfect.
One of those fastballs hit Nationals leadoff hitter Adam Eaton to begin the game, and two more of them turned into the base hits that loaded the bases. Another was supposed to go down and in to Murphy, but while it was down it wasn't really in.
With the Mets lineup struggling overall and hit hard by injuries, a 4-0 deficit right from the start was a big problem. Even though they got three of the runs back on home runs by Michael Conforto and Neil Walker, the Mets never did overcome the Murphy slam.
They were swept in the first series of the season between the two National League East powers, and they've lost eight of their last nine overall. But if the Mets get their season together, it's more than possible that Wheeler's emergence could be as significant as anything else that happened to them Sunday.
"I mean, he just got really good in the middle innings," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "His breaking ball was so much better. That was a really good start for him after the first inning."
It was a really good start and in many ways a satisfying one for Wheeler, despite the grand slam and despite the result. He admitted that getting through the seventh meant something to him, and he agreed the command of his offspeed pitches was better that it has been before.
"By far," he said, noting he had taken advice from teammate Jacob deGrom and changed the grip on his changeup.
"He was dialed in with everything he was throwing," catcher Kevin Plawecki said. "I'm really happy with the way he threw."
So was Wheeler, even though the home run and the loss disappointed him. He knows how much the Mets needed a win, and how much losses to the Nationals can hurt.
"Every time we play these guys, we want to win as many games as possible," he said.