Hey, sometimes you can develop players and win games at the same time!
It helps when the young player in question has the arsenal of Zack Wheeler and the command of that arsenal shown by the Zack Wheeler we saw Thursday night. I differentiate the two not to be snarky, but because that’s the way it goes for most young pitchers. Wheeler just turned 24, and he’s still working on the mechanics, memory and mentality of being a consistent winner, any of which can desert a young hurler on a given night. Pitching is always difficult, occasionally dangerous and often maddening, which we forget watching on TV and listening to postgame Just So stories about grit and toughness. Wheeler’s been a Met for a year and a day, and has already been ushered into Cooperstown and ticketed for the minors multiple times by the yowling hordes on talk radio and Twitter. A little patience would go a long way for all of us.
But if young pitchers can test your patience, now and then there are games that make you dream — nights when everything clicks and a pitcher looks like he’s toying with the opposition. Wheeler was ridiculously good tonight — the fastball, slider and change were all excellent; his location was spot-on; he mixed his pitches masterfully; and when he made a mistake he got lucky. And he got better as he went along, torturing Giancarlo Stanton and Casey McGehee and Garrett Jones in the late innings. (Unfairly relegated to second-banana status: Andrew Heaney, the latest in a depressingly long line of Marlins phenoms. Heaney gave up a long David Wright home run off L’Excrescence d’Loria in his first inning, but nothing else. We’ll see him again, and wish we hadn’t.)
With the eighth inning in the books, I was a wreck — and odds are so were you. My reasons were threefold, ranked in reverse order of anxiety:
1) Wheeler had faced the minimum number of batters — 24 — through eight. Which seemed like it should mean something, as no Met had ever faced the minimum of 27 over nine, but really didn’t. Call it a date with statistical oddity. I wanted it to happen, of course, but kept reminding myself that it wouldn’t mean Wheeler leaping into Taylor Teagarden‘s arms, or ESPN and the MLB Network showing the final inning live, or the AP sending out alerts, or any of the other delightful frippery of a no-hitter.
2) I was wondering how Terry Collins would screw this up. The Met skipper has shown an unfortunate La Russan propensity for frantic !!!MANAGING!!! of late, as witnessed by his yanking Bartolo Colon after eight and then yanking Jenrry Mejia after 2/3 more on Wednesday. Surely he would turn the ninth into some kind of object lesson about leaving well enough alone.
3) The Mets only led 1-0, and this was the Marlins in Lorialand, spiritually built atop the unrelocated graves of a billion undead Marlins that once prowled Soilmaster Stadium. Would it be a 2-1 loss in regulation, or a sadistic 2-1 defeat that would last until the wee hours of Friday? Or some calamity as yet unglimpsed in Metsian nightmares? I didn’t want to know but had a feeling we were all about to find out.
When Wheeler gave up a single to Met nemesis Reed Johnson I actually decided I would not howl for blood if Terry appeared to remove Wheeler — veteran Mets fans may remember Dallas Green and Paul Wilson and a 2-1 Met lead at Wrigley with 26 outs booked that turned into a 4-2 loss when Wilson made his only bad pitch of the day to Sammy Sosa. That was 19 years ago, but I still catch myself thinking about it, and wondering if Wilson might have been better served leaving with his work unfinished but his record unblemished.
Wheeler then gave up the hardest-hit ball of his night, but Rafael Furcal slapped it right to Chris Young in center. Young didn’t drop it, Terry didn’t have to exert himself, and we’d won. Baseball like it oughta be? A preview of what to expect regularly from a slightly more experienced Zack Wheeler? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves — once again, patience is a virtue. But it sure was fun.
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If you’re interested in the latest theory that tries to see baseball through a new perspective and figure out its secrets, I highly recommend this SBNation piece by Jason Turbow on effective velocity. It’s super-smart and fascinating, an attempt to reverse-engineer some of the wiliest pitchers’ instincts and study generations of pitching wisdom through a scientific lens. Plus, for possibly the first time in the history of the Internet, the comments make the piece even smarter and better.