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A Wheeler’s Dozen

You know what Doc Gooden’s typical pitch count was when he was regularly registering double-digit strikeouts in 1984? Neither do I. It never occurred to me to ask. The only pitches any Mets fan was counting 29 years ago were the ones that resulted in strike three. That was the fun of the greatest new toy a Mets fan ever unwrapped and never got tired playing with.

Zack Wheeler struck out 12 Padres in six innings Thursday night in San Diego [1]. Then he came out, because he had already thrown 115 pitches. That gets counted assiduously now. It gets counted so assiduously that it seemed surprising that he didn’t depart after five innings when he had recorded 10 strikeouts yet had already thrown 99 pitches. In 2013, letting a rookie who’d pitched that much pitch the sixth seemed to be pushing it. In 1984 — when Gooden was the last rookie Mets pitcher to strike out more hitters than Wheeler struck out last night — it likely wouldn’t have occurred to anybody to take out a pitcher with 12 strikeouts after six innings. Tom Seaver had once struck out 19 Padres in nine innings, a figure matched in Mets annals only by David Cone. Wheeler was theoretically mathematically alive to make some real team history at Petco Park.

Of course, Terry Collins wouldn’t have gotten back to the hotel alive had he thought to let him try.

Mind you, our current rookie phenom wasn’t ex-Zack-ly necessarily operating on Dwight’s level. Doc shut down the opposition totally and completely once he got rolling in his 16-K performances versus the Pirates and Phillies in September of ’84. Zack, on the other hand, gave up seven hits in his six innings and was saved from trailing only because of nifty defense on a couple of the pitches the Padres touched. Eric Young played some volleyball at the top of the left field wall in the third inning and batted Rene Rivera’s sure home run down to the ground to hold the .188-hitting catcher to a triple. It may be the only ball Young has batted with any success lately, but it was huge. So was Juan Lagares practically Puiging [2] Tyson Ross out at home to prevent San Diego’s pitcher from scoring the go-ahead run in the fifth. Juan’s on-the-fly peg to John Buck was a beautiful strike in its own right…as beautiful as Ross’s slide into Buck’s shoes was ugly.

And speaking of ugly, how about that objectively unattractive two-out call at first blown by Brian Knight? Josh Satin had grounded to Ronny Cedeño (remember him?), who made an off-balance throw to Yonder Alonso to end the top of the fourth, except Knight mysteriously decided Alonso’s foot wasn’t on the bag, even though it probably was, and Daniel Murphy characteristically decided to keep running from second and thus crossed the plate safely. That this latest episode of human error unfolded amid a lively SNY discussion of MLB’s spectacularly flawed plan to institute instant replay [3] on more close plays next year made the whole incident that much more delicious. That the fairly apparent mistake went in the Mets’ favor…hey, like Keith said, human error’s part of the game!

You had Young leaping. You had Lagares firing. You had Murphy with an assist from Knight. You had Mike Baxter graciously getting hit on the foot by Luke Gregerson, Murphy dutifully accepting a poorly conceived intentional walk and Marlon Byrd doubling clear over Chris Denorfia’s head in the eighth to break a 1-1 tie. You had Scott Atchison for one inning and Gonzalez Germen for two giving up nothing of substance. You even had Buck step away from Infant Watch ’13 to give birth to a bouncing baby bomb over the left field fence (it’s a solo shot!). So you had a lot of good things to count up Thursday night en route to the Mets’ 4-1 win.

But mostly you had the starter’s 12 strikeouts. Seven strikeouts swinging. Five strikeouts looking. An incredible slider working brilliantly if not overtime. The rookie’s pitch count topped a hundred in the sixth. Who would let a rookie who’s gonna need his right arm every fifth day over the next umpteen years go even that far usually? If the Mets had their usual allotment of seven ready relievers — which is to say if LaTroy Hawkins didn’t share at least one unfortunate equipment choice [4] with Jordany Valdespin — Zack’s probably out of there after five, never mind that he raced to 10 Ks. He was definitely going to be out of there after six, his Wheeler’s Dozen notwithstanding. You don’t get rookies striking out 16 like in young Doctor Gooden’s day for two very reasonable reasons.

1) They don’t really make ’em like Dr. K anymore.

2) Even when they do, they know what the pitch counts are. They know ’em, they watch ’em and they swear by ’em. They ask for trouble when they don’t abide by ’em. They have loads of data supporting why this makes all the sense in the world. We are conditioned to nod and agree that a rookie who strikes out 12 batters in six innings almost certainly should never come back to the mound and try to strike out any more in the seventh. We understand what we didn’t decades ago that this would be reckless and that taking that kind of chance with this kind of arm would be irrational.

Progress can be a real shame sometimes.