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The Road to Somewhere

Bartolo Colon [1], who won Tuesday night’s game [2], is old (by baseball player standards), portly (check out this self-administered belly-fat check [3]) and never seems to be taking himself all that seriously (though of course he is). Colon doesn’t have a blazing fastball anymore, but what he does have is pinpoint location and a deep reservoir of wisdom filled during a baseball lifetime.

Zack Wheeler [4], then, is the anti-Colon. Wheeler is young (by anybody’s standards), skinny and seems serious as a heart attack when it comes to pitching. He has a blazing fastball with natural movement, along with a biting slider. What he doesn’t have is great control, and his reservoir of wisdom is still getting filled.

You saw it tonight. Wheeler had great stuff — he generally does. He attacked the Braves’ leadoff hitter, Jason Heyward [5], with buzzing fastballs and sliders over an 11-pitch at-bat that ended with a Heyward homer. (The Braves are pretty good too, especially Heyward and Met killer Freddie Freeman [6].) Wheeler escaped the first with Heyward’s shot as the only damage, thanks in large part to a typically superhuman Juan Lagares [7] catch halfway up the fence. After that he pitched well enough, then unraveled in the fifth, hanging sliders and getting stomped by the Braves for three more runs — a tally that once again could have been worse without some nice defense from Ruben Tejada [8] and David Wright [9].

After the game, Bobby Ojeda was all over Wheeler, pointing out that he didn’t throw inside to Heyward, pitched lazily to Ervin Santana [10] in that fatal fifth and failed to make adjustments. I find Ojeda wearying when he’s thumping his chest generically about toughness and other intangibles that grow enormous with the passage of time, but he’s terrific when he’s taking apart the mental strategies of pitching, which was his subject tonight. Wheeler, he said, had good enough stuff to win — but was undone by a lack of planning and an inability to adjust.

In other words, he’s still learning to pitch.

A lot of promising Mets are still learning this year. In the starting rotation there’s Wheeler and Jenrry Mejia [11], soon to be joined by fellow students Rafael Montero [12] and Noah Syndergaard [13]. In the bullpen you’ve got Gonzalez Germen [14] and Jeurys Familia [15]. And in the lineup there’s Lagares and Travis d’Arnaud [16].

Lagares and d’Arnaud, in my opinion, are the most important players on the team this year.

This is (yet another) transitional year for the Mets, one that could lead to promise, or just to more teases about promise — recently both contention and payrolls have had a habit of retreating into the future, like the hallway in Poltergeist. As an organization, the Mets appear to be enviably rich in starting pitching, while iffy at best on offense. Solid campaigns from Lagares and d’Arnaud would be invaluable in advancing the varsity’s timetable, allowing the Mets to trade some of their starting surplus [17] (or even spend actual money, should it materialize) to fill holes. Right now the lineup’s mostly holes; taking catcher and center field off the punch list would make the task a heck of a lot easier.

Lagares has looked great so far, which is obviously heartening. His defense has been stellar, of course, but the real revelation has been the bat — the light switch has seemed to go on for Lagares in terms of working good counts and finding a pitch to drive. Granted, it’s very early — Jeff Francoeur [18] rather infamously started 2010 as an on-base machine before reverting to his Francoeurian habit of hitting like the base on balls had been outlawed. But so far it’s very encouraging, small sample size and all.

As for d’Arnaud, he started very poorly, sending writers to the files looking for longest oh-fers to start seasons and sparking statistical brushfires over whether we should or shouldn’t worry. But then hits started falling in, as they tend to. In the ninth, with Craig Kimbrel [19] looking mortal, Lagares and d’Arnaud both smacked fastballs into the outfield for hits, turning a depressing 4-0 loss into a less depressing 4-3 loss [20]. (Tejada struck out on a 97 mph chest-high heater, which isn’t too venal a sin even if it did end the game.)

There’s no column in the standings for moral victories; the Mets remain a rather meh 3-5. But if you squint a little bit, you can see better days. You can see Wheeler learning and harnessing that phenomenal stuff. You can see Familia and Germen gaining confidence from good relief outings. You can see Lagares and d’Arnaud calming down and hunting strikes and hitting in a little better luck.

Or not. Like I said, I was squinting.