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All eyes on Wheeler as Mets prospect debuts

Right-hander faces Braves in nightcap of doubleheader

ATLANTA -- Matt Harvey did this, you know.

The crush of expectations, the weight of a franchise -- Harvey endured it all a year ago and succeeded brilliantly in the face of it, breaking records as he raced out to one of the finest starts in franchise history.

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Eleven months later, it is top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler's turn to debut for the Mets on Tuesday against the Braves, in the nightcap of a doubleheader in which Harvey won the matinee. The same Wheeler who dazzled Mets fans before an injury this spring. The same Wheeler whom most scouts once considered a superior prospect to Harvey.

As a result, Mets backers expect Wheeler to debut on Tuesday just as Harvey did, scoffing at the traditional big league learning curve and never looking back. Things don't always work that way, of course, and even Wheeler admitted Monday that, "I'm not the savior at all."

But he is something. And he has a chance to be something.

"This kid is very, very talented," manager Terry Collins said. "We're very lucky to have him. Everybody is looking forward to seeing him pitch."

From the start, this was the plan: let Wheeler work out the kinks at Triple-A Las Vegas as MLB's Super Two arbitration cutoff ticked away, thereby serving two missions at once. And the Mets are glad they did, considering Wheeler stumbled to an 0-1 record and 5.79 ERA over his first five starts in the desert, struggles that he attributed to the thin air, concrete infields and small ballparks of the Pacific Coast League. Once he figured out how to overcome all that, Wheeler reeled off four wins and a 2.98 ERA over his final eight starts.

Heading into the last of them, Wheeler's superiors hinted that a callup was coming. They told him officially shortly thereafter, allowing him to hang around Vegas for a few days before heading east to Georgia over the weekend.

That his first start comes at Turner Field is simply gravy for Wheeler, who grew up 30 minutes northwest of here in Smyrna, Ga. When he was in eighth grade, Wheeler moved another half-hour away to the town of Dallas, where he developed into an elite high school pitching prospect and a first-round Draft pick of the Giants.

The rest of his story rapidly fell into place. Acquiring Wheeler for Carlos Beltran in July 2011, the Mets watched him continue to develop from a very good prospect to an elite one. His 2012 season caused expectations to soar to new heights, particularly in the context of Harvey's successes. So it is fitting that his debut will come on the same day as Harvey's start.

"It's a great thing for this organization and the fan base to look forward to see what the future's going to be like," Collins said. "We've got two young guys that have a chance to be very, very, very good. Pitching is the name of this game, and we're going to run two guys out there tomorrow who can take this organization north pretty fast."

The issue is what happens should Wheeler fall short. Prospects do not always fit neatly into the categories of All-Stars and busts, and there is a chance Wheeler will land somewhere in between: a decent mid-rotation starter, perhaps, a successful big leaguer but something less than an ace.

The Mets' job is to temper expectations while he grows into whatever his future might hold.

"I'm just trying to come up here and help the team anyway I can," Wheeler said.

That starts Tuesday, when Wheeler opposes Paul Maholm in the second half of a day-night doubleheader. He should be well-rested, having spent Sunday night relaxing at the Georgia home he shares with one of his brothers. A few friends drove over, swapping stories and laughs until it was time for sleep.

During a 14-minute introductory news conference Monday, Wheeler came off as similarly convivial, saying all the right things and even cracking a few jokes. He told the story of a former pitching coach, Steve Kline, who advised him not to look at the crowd when he first toes the rubber as a big leaguer.

"I think he actually said he threw up off the back of the mound his first time," Wheeler said, laughing. "He told me not to look up ... all the lights and the fans and everybody will be moving, it will make you sick."

Collins, for his part, did advise Wheeler to take a moment and soak in the crowd, which should include dozens of his family and friends. He may as well focus on his fans for a moment, since for the rest of the night -- the year? the decade? -- all of those eyes will be trained squarely on him.


Mixed Beginnings
Highly regarded pitching prospects who made their big league debuts with the Mets have had varying degrees of success in first starts. Of the 19 included here, only Dwight Gooden, Bobby Jones, Mike Pelfrey, Dillon Gee and Matt Harvey won their first starts. Five others lost, and Grant Roberts avoided a loss despite allowing seven runs in 1 1/3 innings.
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
* 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