NEW YORK -- In the days, hours and minutes leading up to the July 31 Trade Deadline, the Mets paid close attention to rumors regarding Zack Wheeler. The industry-wide assumption was that general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, whose team had fallen as far as 11 games below .500 following the All-Star break, would trade the impending free agent before 4 p.m. ET that day.
Instead, unable to find the return they desired, the Mets chose to keep their pitching core intact. Rather than replace Wheeler with new acquisition Marcus Stroman, they paired those two in the middle of their rotation. The idea was to play not for 2020, but for 2019.
“It was a huge jolt,” manager Mickey Callaway said. “When 4:01 hit that day, you saw a lot of excitement in the clubhouse. The guys have gone out there and backed up the moves that we didn’t make.”
None have done so more effectively than Wheeler, who has thrown 15 consecutive shutout innings since the Deadline. Eight of those came Tuesday in the Mets’ 5-0 win over the Marlins at Citi Field, their fifth straight victory and their 12th in their last 13 games -- a streak that has vaulted them two games over .500, their healthiest standing since April 24.
“We know how good we can be and how good we are,” Wheeler said. “We’re shooting for it.”
Wheeler’s latest contribution was something short of perfect; he did not pitch a clean inning all night, allowing eight hits and a walk. But Wheeler required only 101 pitches to complete eight innings in his deepest and most efficient outing of the season.
To do so, he relied on a defensive-minded middle-infield combination of Luis Guillorme and Adeiny Hechavarria to turn three double plays. Sixteen of the 24 outs Wheeler recorded came via ground balls, many with traffic on the basepaths. That’s telling. Wheeler, who had allowed a .310 average with men on base heading into the night, held the Marlins to a 1-for-20 mark pitching out of the stretch.
The result -- eight shutout innings -- lowered Wheeler’s career ERA (minimum of 10 starts) against the Marlins to 1.77 -- second-best in Major League history behind only Johan Santana (1.70).
“He’s a guy with ace-type stuff,” first baseman Pete Alonso said. “He’s a guy that gives us a really good chance when he’s on the mound. You could see that tonight. He’s got a hell of an arm and when he’s on, he does a really good job of stifling opposing offenses.”
Alonso was among the many to support Wheeler, hitting a solo home run -- his 36th -- in the fifth. Catcher Wilson Ramos struck the biggest blow with a three-run shot in the third inning, and Todd Frazier opened the scoring with an RBI double off Marlins starter Hector Noesi in the first. As it turned out, Wheeler needed only a fraction of that support.
When asked, Wheeler shrugs off any suggestion that he’s more at ease since the Trade Deadline, despite the fact that he went on a similar run -- a 1.74 ERA in nine post-Deadline starts -- last season. Others in the clubhouse believe there may be some correlation.
“I think Zack loves it here, so I think he got a little bit of a jolt from not being traded, and I know the rest of the team did,” Callaway said. “He does get to relax every bit because he does get to be here for the rest of the year. … He needs to get after it and try to do something special, with a pretty good group of special teammates.”
Mets starters now own a 2.61 ERA since the All-Star break, the lowest mark in the Majors. It’s the primary reason why the team has won 12 of its last 13 games, vaulting back into a postseason race that once seemed destined to proceed without them. Perhaps it’s even sustainable. With Stroman pitching alongside Wheeler, instead of replacing him, the Mets feel confident such success can continue.
“The fact that he wasn’t traded is big because … he’s been a part of this starting rotation for a really long time,” Alonso said of Wheeler, a Met since 2013. “I feel like if he was gone, there would be a missing piece. He’s been electric, so it’s been awesome.”