Nearly any Mets fan perusing these pages likely remembers that amazing doubleheader in 2013 when Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler teamed up to give a terrible Mets team a glimpse of hope. Friday night was a throwback, with Wheeler making his first start in two years the night after Matt Harvey made a solid return from surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome. With the Mets’ deep rotation suddenly looking a bit more shallow after injuries to Seth Lugo and Steven Matz, a strong performance from Wheeler could again be a ray of hope.
The evening started excellently for Wheeler, as he induced a ground out from Dee Gordon before blowing a fastball past A.J. Ellis and striking out Christian Yelich looking on a perfectly spotted fastball on the inside part of the plate. In the bottom half of the first, the Mets offense built on that strong start, with Curtis Granderson driving in Asdrubal Cabrera with a single to give them a 1-0 early lead. This was also the first time the Mets had scored in the first four innings of a game, as the majority of the hitters work through a sleepy start to the season.
Unfortunately, Wheeler’s rust became evident in the second inning. Giancarlo Stanton started the inning with a smash that on any other night probably winds up in the second deck in left field. Instead, the wind knocked it down, but the Marlins would get on the board three batters later anyway when Derek Dietrich drove in two with a triple. By the time Wheeler struck out Wei-Yin Chen to end the inning, the Marlins had taken a 3-1 lead. The 22-pitch inning was very similar to Wheeler’s pre-injury struggles; at times, he loses control of his plus stuff, and that leads to walks and hittable pitches over the middle.
The Marlins would add two runs to their lead in the third, when Yelich dinged a home run off the right field foul pole after Gordon reached on a bloop single to left. Wheeler held the Marlins off the board in the fourth before exiting for a pinch hitter in the bottom half of the inning. In his first action since 2014, he threw 80 pitches (54 strikes) with four strikeouts and one walk over four innings. He allowed six hits, including a couple unlucky bloops and dribblers as well as at least one ball that likely leaves the yard under more favorable conditions.
Josh Smoker relieved Wheeler and promptly allowed the Marlins to stretch their lead, walking two and allowing three hits in only a third of an inning of work. Rafael Montero inherited the mess as Terry Collins seemingly waved a white flag on the game, but the struggling righthander navigated out of the jam he inherited and pitched two and two thirds scoreless innings with a pair of strikeouts. Josh Edgin replaced Montero in the eighth and also pitched well, finishing out the game with a pair of scoreless innings.
Meanwhile, the Mets offense was almost completely dormant. Rene Rivera and Granderson were stranded after doubles, while Michael Conforto (as a pinch hitter) and Wilmer Flores never advanced past first after singles. Yoenis Cespedes launched his first home run of the year in the eighth, but his solo shot was wasted as the Mets went quietly in the ninth, losing their first game to the Fish by a score of 7-2.
Thoughts from the Game
A pessimist could easily point to the elevated pitch count, 11.25 ERA, and at times hittable stuff as reasons to be down on Wheeler’s return. However, in a rare moment of optimism, I think this was an encouraging rebirth for the former top prospect. Despite two years of injuries and rust, Wheeler flashed a riding fastball (touching 98 once) and strong secondaries, as well as stretches of control that reminded viewers of his extremely strong finish to 2014, which incidentally included a complete game shutout of the Marlins. Inconsistency will be a problem at least as the start of the season and likely throughout the year, but for an extremely talented arm who still has plenty of upside and endeared himself to Mets fans with his intense desire to remain a Met, it’s a good beginning.
As for the Mets offense, I am less optimistic. In 2015, Jose Reyes was a below average offensive player (.240 TAv), and his success last season was driven by a power spike that his peripherals don’t support. He’s off to a 1-for-13 start to 2017, and while that’s not a meaningful sample at all, it’s a worrisome start. If Reyes can’t hit, the Mets are probably looking at starting Flores at third, and while he can certainly mash against lefties, his performance against RHP leaves much to be desired. In the outfield, Granderson is a notoriously slow starter, but he’s 36 and is taking on additional defensive responsibilities in center. These are two obvious holes (utility infielder and center field) in the Mets roster that management did not address during the offseason. Hopefully this lack of urgency doesn’t come back to hurt the team in the long run.
Other Mets News
With the Mets suffering some rough injury to their pitching depth (what else is new), they’ve reportedly looked into signing Doug Fister. Fister made 32 starts (180.1 innings) in 2016 for the Astros and was bad, with a 4.64 ERA and a 4.75 FIP. His low strikeout numbers stayed low, but his walks ticked up over three per nine innings for the first time in his career. Fister has dealt with elbow and shoulder injuries in recent years as well, but is still searching for a major league deal. I’m not convinced he’s a significant upgrade over the Mets’ current options (Rafael Montero, Sean Gilmartin, Adam Wilk, Ricky Knapp), but he could be at least a passable innings sponge. However, the Mets don’t see that role as worthy of a major league deal at the moment, so for now Fister remains unsigned.
In news that actually affect the Mets roster, Paul Sewald was called up from Triple-A. Sewald had a strong spring, with a 2.51 ERA and 12 strikeouts against only five walks in 14.1 innings. His minor league numbers over the past two seasons are impressive, with more than a strikeout per inning and a low walk rate, including hitter friendly Triple-A Las Vegas. With the Mets bullpen a little bit stressed after Wednesday’s extra-inning loss and Wheeler’s short start, Sewald will serve as some extra bullpen depth. To make room on the roster, Ty Kelly was designated for assignment.
Photo credit: Noah K. Murray – USA Today Sports