PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Eleven months ago, Zack Wheeler stood in front of his Spring Training locker, disappointed if not shocked, lamenting the 8.10 ERA that lost him a job as the Mets' fifth starter. Twenty-eight years old and four seasons removed from his last successful big league campaign, Wheeler had gone through Tommy John surgery, a host of health complications and enough adversity to make it seem dubious -- at least to outsiders -- that he would ever be a productive big leaguer again.
"Mentally, it takes a freaking toll on you," Wheeler said. "Especially being out for two years -- missing the playoffs, missing the World Series -- that's tough. I think it was more mentally tough than physically.":: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::
Flash forward to Monday, when Wheeler stood in the same spot, but a different mental space entirely. Over his last 11 starts of the 2018 season, Wheeler went 9-1 with a 1.68 ERA, challenging Jacob deGrom as the game's best pitcher over that stretch. He not only proved that he could be an effective big leaguer, but shattered the doubts.
"He just has this personality of like, 'I don't care' -- not in a bad way, but in a good way," teammate Steven Matz said. "He got sent down to the Minor Leagues last year out of camp. He had this attitude like, 'I don't care.' He went back and dominated."
In Wheeler's eyes, his ascension to one of the game's best pitchers was no surprise.
"I knew I was going to get better," Wheeler said. "You've just got to stay confident -- not cocky, but confident. There's a difference. You've got to trust yourself. You've got to trust the surgery. You've got to trust everything that happens. … It's always in the back of your head. You know how good you are. You know how good you can be. My biggest thing was as soon as I got healthy last year, I just wanted to show it."
For Wheeler, that meant throwing bullpen sessions without pain for the first time in years. Unlike in 2017, when a stress reaction in his right arm nagged him enough that he "couldn't work on anything" during the season, Wheeler was able to make mechanical adjustments each week between starts.
He also added a new pitch, a split-fingered fastball that he picked up from his brother, Adam, who in turn learned it from Jose Contreras during his time in the Yankees' organization. Thanks in large part to that, as well as new catcher Devin Mesoraco's commitment to having him throw inside, Wheeler held left-handed batters to a .679 OPS -- the lowest mark of his career.
"His stuff is insane," Matz said. "Slider, splitter, curveball, changeup. When all that kind of clicked, it's almost like it was expected to happen when you've got that kind of stuff."
Now, the challenge for Wheeler will be repeating it. Standing in the Mets' clubhouse Monday, he glanced two lockers to his right, lauding deGrom for the consistency of his National League Cy Young Award caliber season. Unlike Wheeler, who returned from a brief banishment to the Minors to post a 4.44 ERA over the first half of last season, deGrom offered the Mets brilliance from April through September.
If Wheeler can do the same in 2019, he will enter free agency at a high point of his career. The Mets have yet to approach Wheeler about a contract extension, and given his injury history, they probably won't. That's OK with Wheeler, who says, "I love it here," but knows he still has something to prove heading into his final season of team control.
After years of frustration, Wheeler's life and career appear to be coming together. Over the winter, he proposed to his longtime girlfriend in Colorado, bought a house in Georgia and a miniature French bulldog to live in it. A strong season and a new contract would add further vindication to his long and sometimes rocky road.
"I don't want to be cliché, but it's about what's happening right now," Wheeler said. "When the time comes, that will happen. An extension or doing free agency, whatever happens is going to happen."