Wheeler takes positive step in win over D-backs
Backed by offense from Flores, Lagares, righty doesn't issue a walk
PHOENIX -- Coming up through the Giants' organization, and later through the Mets', Zack Wheeler always featured an electric fastball and plus breaking ball. His problem -- and it was a modest one -- was the same as that of so many young pitchers: at times, Wheeler struggled to throw strikes.
It was a problem that stuck with Wheeler as he rose through the Minor Leagues, haunting him at times during his first taste of the Majors. So it was worth noting that Wheeler did not walk a batter for the first time all season Saturday in the Mets' 4-1 victory over the D-backs at Chase Field, on a night that he and fellow rookie Wilmer Flores shined.
"If you don't walk guys and you've got his stuff, you're going to win games," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "Hitting's hard. And hitting a guy with that kind of stuff is real hard."
As if to prove his manager's point, Wheeler was pristine over his first six innings, striking out four batters while scattering four hits. The D-backs did not put a runner in scoring position all night against Wheeler, who walked five Royals last time out in one of his least effective starts of the season.
His final line lost a bit of luster on Aaron Hill's home run to left-center to lead off the seventh, and Wheeler left the game two batters later when Wil Nieves ripped a single into left. But after loading the bases on a hit and a walk, Scott Rice generated a ground ball to escape the inning. That capped Wheeler's line at 6 1/3 innings with six hits, one run, four strikeouts and -- of course -- no walks.
"It's good, obviously," said Wheeler, who was unaware that he had issued zero free passes. "I was just trying to throw strikes and get ahead of guys. That was the main point tonight."
The D-backs loaded the bases again against Carlos Torres in the eighth, but Pedro Feliciano struck out Gerardo Parra looking, and LaTroy Hawkins pitched a scoreless ninth to give the Mets their first victory on their 11-game road trip. Rice called it "an awesome win," crowing that "everyone did their job today."
That meant the pitchers, the hitters and especially the kids. By singling home Ike Davis with two outs in the fourth, Flores knocked in a run for the fourth consecutive game. He added a two-run single off David Hernandez in the eighth, giving him eight RBIs over that span.
Averaging fewer than four runs per game since David Wright landed on the disabled list last weekend, the Mets finished with two against D-backs starter Brandon McCarthy. Juan Lagares opened the scoring with an opposite-field homer to lead off the fourth, before Flores singled home Davis.
"I'm still shaking a little bit," said Flores, who made his big league debut earlier this week. "I try to control myself a little bit and I think it's working."
Control might as well have been the buzzword of the day, considering Wheeler entered the game averaging 4.97 walks per nine innings over his first nine starts, the third-highest rate in baseball among pitchers with at least 50 innings. Free passes had been a problem for Wheeler throughout his Minor League career, slowing his ascent from prospect to finished product.
To be fair, they will always be a part of his game. Pitchers with Wheeler's natural movement often struggle with their control, particularly early in their baseball lives. So it was not surprising to see Wheeler walk so many batters -- at least three in six of his first nine starts -- at the beginning of his career.
But it was also eye-opening to see what Wheeler could do on a night when his control was impeccable. Unable to make much solid contact, the D-backs struck out four times against Wheeler, hit two of their four singles on the ground -- one of them never left the infield -- and rolled over nine other balls on the night.
The result was one of the best starts of Wheeler's young career.
"It's just flowing right now," Wheeler said, smiling, "and it feels good."