PHOENIX -- There's no doubt that the feel-good story so far for the Mets this season is the comeback of Zack Wheeler from Tommy John surgery more than two years ago.
The injuries and negative storylines of the first six weeks are too numerous to mention, but Wheeler isn't one of them.
"He certainly is one of our better stories," Mets manager Terry Collins said after the Mets lost, 7-3, to the D-backs on Monday night at Chase Field, where six of those Arizona runs came after Wheeler was out of the game.
"He's made big steps each and every time out. I'm glad he's back. It's been a long road. Two years is a long time to be away from the game. But he's responded great. He feels good."
The Mets, with a depleted bullpen and starting rotation, have lost five in a row. But Wheeler on Monday night was not the reason for that.
Wheeler had the ligament replacement surgery on March 24, 2015, and his stat line for the last two seasons reads DNP -- did not play. Thus, it was no small feat that on Monday night he made his seventh start and tossed a season-high 108 pitches, working into the seventh inning and leaving with the score tied, 1-1, after Jeff Mathis opened with a single.
Wheeler allowed seven hits, the run on a homer by Jake Lamb to open the sixth, walked only one and struck out six. It was a good thing that Wheeler was more concerned for once about his mechanics rather than his physical condition.
"My fastball command was sort of there, particularly because I couldn't get my offspeed pitches over until about the sixth inning, when I figured out my curveball," Wheeler said. "I felt comfortable. I felt strong still that late. I told [Collins] that I was good to go in the seventh. I still felt strong. I knew it was going to be a short leash, but I'm glad that he let me go back out there."
With Noah Syndergaard, Seth Lugo, Steven Matz and Jeurys Familia on the disabled list, Wheeler's performance is a bit of balm to calm the pitching wounds. Wheeler has had three consecutive outings now of varying lengths when he has given up only one earned run.
"His stuff's getting better. His command of his stuff's getting better," Collins said. "He's a power guy, and now he's starting to get back in the groove of what we saw before he got hurt.
"He's one of those guys that you're not afraid to ride. At the beginning of the season, you didn't want to let him go too far. You kept a close eye on him. But now, I think he's ready to go 115 if he has to."
There were times when even Wheeler didn't think he'd be able to make it back. His comeback came in fits and starts. Wheeler was able to work only one Minor League rehab inning last year, on Aug. 6, and was then shut down for the season.
"I mean, two years of rehabbing was very difficult," he said. "Last year, every time I tried to ramp it up, something happened. It's just unfortunate. But this year I've been lucky, and so far I've come up feeling good."
Equally, Collins began to wonder when and if Wheeler would be able to return. The guidelines for recovery from Tommy John surgery are 12-18 months.
Collins has gone through this before with Matt Harvey, who had Tommy John surgery on Oct. 22, 2013, missed the entire '14 season, and wasn't allowed to even pick up a ball until pitchers and catchers reported to camp at Port St. Lucie, Fla., in February 2015, a period of 17 months. Wheeler far exceeded that.
"Oh, absolutely," Collins said. "As we've seen, there have been a lot of instances where guys just don't come back from that surgery for whatever reason. All the different problems he had with the forearm, with the flexor tendon and some of the other continued issues with his elbow, I wasn't sure when he was going to pitch. But I give him credit. You've got to tip your cap to him. He battled through it all, and he's back."
In a macro sense, that's great news for the Mets, who, in a micro sense, are "scuffling" at this point, Collins said. It's nice to rely on something this positive.