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Mets split as Wheeler wraps season of 'huge strides'

Young righty allows three runs in five innings, finishing at 11-11

WASHINGTON -- What the Mets wanted out of Zack Wheeler in 2014 was development. They never expected him to replicate Matt Harvey's monstrous successes during his first full summer in Flushing, despite the younger pitcher's obvious talent. What they hoped for was simply enough growth to feel comfortable keeping Wheeler around for years to come.

Over the past six months, that is precisely what happened. While Harvey was busy making a fresh batch of tabloid headlines a few hundred miles to the north at Yankee Stadium, Wheeler wrapped up his own season with five innings of three-run ball in a 3-0 loss to the Nationals as the Mets split a doubleheader, taking a 7-4 win earlier. He finished his first full big league season with an 11-11 record and 3.54 ERA, though the story of his year truly began on May 24. Since that day, when he began making a conscious effort to be less predictable, Wheeler posted a 3.05 ERA.

"I had my games where I was up and down throughout the year," Wheeler said. "But it's all a learning process and it will make me that much better next year."

Thursday's outing was a reasonable final start for Wheeler, though it paled in comparison to what Gio Gonzalez gave the Nats. In his final audition for a spot in Washington's postseason rotation, Gonzalez struck out a career-high 12 batters -- including six straight at one point -- over seven shutout innings. The only hit against him was a one-out single by Daniel Murphy in the first. Gonzalez induced the next batter, Eric Campbell, to hit into a double play, sparking a run of 14 consecutive outs.

"I was waiting to see that guy," Nats catcher Wilson Ramos said. "He was amazing on the mound. He was aggressive all game. Every pitch was good, down in the zone, breaking ball broke really good, changeup worked really good, down in the zone. That was [an] amazing, amazing job from him today."

Wheeler was not so fortunate. Cruising until the fourth, the right-hander opened that inning by loading the bases on two singles and a walk. The next batter, Tyler Moore, plated the game's first run on a fielder's choice, before Anthony Recker's passed ball allowed another to score. Wheeler eventually stranded the bases loaded, though not before plunking Anthony Rendon with a pitch to force in a third run.

"They hit one ball hard the whole night," Wheeler said. "I did walk three guys -- two that inning -- and I did hit a guy. It was one of those games where everything was hitting a hole or just dropping in. It's not the way I wanted to go out this year, but it happened."

It was indeed a mediocre final outing in what has been an exceptional second half for Wheeler. It was here in Washington that the right-hander gave up five runs over six innings of a start on May 18, bloating his ERA to 4.89. He spoke that night of the need to mix up his repertoire, doing so with great success his next time out. From May 24 on, Wheeler delivered 16 quality starts in 23 outings.

Now fully entrenched in the Mets' rotation going forward, Wheeler will enter 2015 as part of a group that should also include a healthy Harvey and Jacob deGrom. The Mets must make choices from there, whether it's trading Jon Niese or Bartolo Colon, putting Dillon Gee in the bullpen, starting Harvey's season late or any other machination. But with those sorts of question marks surrounding this group, Wheeler is one of the few constants. One of the pitching staff's few sure things.

"He obviously made advancements all season long," manager Terry Collins said. "Obviously the one thing we've got to do is we've got to contain it, and we've got to get him to pound the strike zone a little more. But I thought he made huge strides."

The organization believes that at age 24, he can certainly still improve. And even if he doesn't, the Wheeler of 2014 was still a pretty good pitcher.

"I told him the other day, 'Look, we're planning on winning next year, and you've got to be able to go out there and know what it's like,'" Collins said. "And he did that. I think he's going to be better because of it."

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