NEW YORK -- As Zack Wheeler warmed in the Citi Field bullpen early Friday evening, the nerves he anticipated never quite surfaced. Pitching coach Dan Warthen offered a calming quip as Wheeler made his way to the mound, further lightening the mood. This felt real and natural to Wheeler. This
NEW YORK -- As Zack Wheeler warmed in the Citi Field bullpen early Friday evening, the nerves he anticipated never quite surfaced. Pitching coach Dan Warthen offered a calming quip as Wheeler made his way to the mound, further lightening the mood. This felt real and natural to Wheeler. This was what he had missed all those months.
While it was not ultimately the return that Wheeler envisioned during his lonely mornings of rehab in Florida, Friday was a necessary start. On a bitterly cold night at Citi Field, Wheeler allowed five runs over four innings of his first outing since Sept. 25, 2014, notable more for the starting pitcher's presence than the resulting 7-2 loss to the Marlins.
"As I told him, 'Hey, it's step one,'" manager Terry Collins said. "'It's not going to be easy. This is a very, very good league that you haven't been in in two years.' It's going to take a little time to get him right."
In particular, Wheeler bemoaned a lack of refinement on his breaking pitches, which he largely avoided throughout his four innings. Christian Yelich hit one 88-mph slider off the right-field foul pole for a two-run homer. Other Marlins timed up a fastball that averaged 94 mph and reached 97, per Statcast™. Overall, it was a repertoire that Marlins manager Don Mattingly called "dominant" in the early innings, even if it lacked the panache Wheeler demonstrated during Spring Training games.
The Mets shrugged that off, assuming Wheeler would battle inconsistency after two full seasons away from the Majors. The club brought him to New York in spite of that, figuring a promotion would benefit his psyche after the grind of near-constant rehab.
"When you miss a couple years, you want to get back," catcher Rene Rivera said. "You want to feel like you belong in the big leagues and you can pitch."
In many ways, the Mets were pleased simply to have Wheeler on the Citi Field mound. Once one of baseball's most promising pitching prospects, Wheeler posted a 3.50 ERA over 49 starts from 2013-14, each of them occurring before his 25th birthday. He was a pitcher on the rise, at least until Tommy John surgery interfered in March 2015. Thirteen months after surgery, Wheeler underwent a second procedure to remove an undissolved stitch from his throwing elbow. Another four months after that, he suffered a flexor strain in his right forearm.
Excepting a one-inning rehab stint in the Minors last summer, Wheeler did not pitch again until this March.
"Honestly, I didn't know what to expect going into the spring," Wheeler said. "I didn't know if I was going to be sharp, or if I could still throw hard, if I'd have my off-speed. All that's there."
Five days from now in Philadelphia, Wheeler will have another chance to refine his pitches; the pomp and circumstance of his comeback giving way to just another game. The Mets are counting on his success, and with Steven Matz and Seth Lugo both sidelined for a month or more, Wheeler is not just a valuable member of the rotation but a necessary one.
"I wanted to come out here and dominate today, just sort of put my foot down that I'm back and I belong here," Wheeler said. "I'm not down. It stinks that I lost, that I really didn't give us a chance to win. But it's a long season. I will improve and do better."
Anthony DiComo has covered the Mets for MLB.com since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo and Facebook, and listen to his podcast.