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Zack to the Future

Zack Wheeler [1] was back Friday and not nearly as good as ever. To be backhandedly fair, the Zack we once knew wasn’t yet as great as he was projected to be [2], but he sure seemed to be getting there. His trajectory was reasonable for a freshman and sophomore of his ilk. Two steps up, one step back. Then three steps up, one step back. Then, presumably, nothing but leaps onward and upward. That’s the deal promising young pitchers implicitly sign for.

Two full seasons missed isn’t supposed to be embedded in the fine print, but Zack’s dotted line included an unusually lengthy blank space between 2014 and 2017. In a way, though, Wheeler is one of the lucky ones. Maybe the luckiest one when you consider where he is now after where he wasn’t in 2015 and 2016. I can’t think of another Met who lost that much major league time to surgery and rehabilitation and then showed up back for work as if nothing had changed at the office. The only remotely comparable return from the abyss I can conjure — a case of oblivion as opposed to injury — was that of Kelvin Chapman [3], the 1979 Mets’ Opening Day second baseman who disappeared from our consciousness for about a half-decade. Seriously, he was a trivia question by 1980. Then, through perseverance that would have daunted Rudy Ruettiger, Chapman rematerialized in Flushing amid the surprise division push of 1984 a material contributor to a legitimate contender. Nobody expected much out of Kelvin, so nobody could have been too surprised when his ability to contribute evaporated and he was deleted from the Mets all over again in 1985, never to be heard from again in the MLB sense.

Wheeler, on the other hand, has been all about expectations. You wouldn’t have expected a Mets playoff team to burgeon without him when it was all “Wheelz Up” upon his debut in 2013. If you bought the proper ticket package, they gave you a t-shirt with that apropos message when he pitched his first home game. It wasn’t much of a takeoff [4], but turbulence is a part of every young pitcher’s flight plan. Harvey, deGrom, Syndergaard…they weren’t, at the outset of their individual journeys, always what they’ve been this week. This week they’ve been mostly unhittable. Weeks featuring pitching like that should go on forever.

They don’t. Against the ultimately victorious Marlins [5], the All-Star trio’s prodigal rotationmate couldn’t maintain the prevailing Fleet of Aces theme for more than one inning. But what a splendid inning it was. It encompassed a groundout and two swinging strikeouts, not to mention velocity and command. That’s the inning the Tommy John [6] business and everything after was designed to lead to, and it happened as all of us wished. It was a genuine heartwarmer on a frigid Citi Field night.

Unfortunately, the first inning was followed by the second and third, during which five Marlin runs scored and we were reminded that all the king’s horses and Dr. David Altchek besides could put Zack Wheeler back together again, but not necessarily in the prêt-à-porter fashion we wished to see him model ASAP. You don’t want to admit this regarding a starting pitcher who was going on 924 days’ rest, but it might take time for Wheeler to substantially surpass a performance that lasted four innings, required eighty pitches and yielded seven baserunners.

What to do? For Wheeler, build up that strength, that endurance, that feel for the game, that consistency and that confidence (the last of which Zack never seems to lack). For us, show patience. Or curb our innate impatience. We’ve waited this long, we can wait a little longer. We kind of have to, given the dissipating depth of our starting corps.

Bright side? Two seasons in absentia and Wheeler’s spot in the rotation still deservedly had his name on it. True, you could make out bits of masking tape from where the Mets were compelled to improvise while he was getting himself reZacharyed, but nearly 31 months later, the spot was still Wheeler’s to reclaim. That first inning on this first cold night makes one believe he’ll get a firm enough grip on it soon.

Despite three dynamite starts in four games, the Mets have so burdened their bullpen that they need to reinforce it prior to their fifth. A blister on Monday, extras on Wednesday, Matt Kemp [7] on Thursday and the somewhat predictably cumbersome reanimation of a heretofore dormant asset on Friday tends to keep Ricky Bones [8]’s boys on high alert. Thus, in time for Saturday night’s date with the Fish — because who doesn’t love Saturday night games in early April? — erstwhile Las Vegas 51 righty Paul Sewald joins the cast (at the DFA expense of Tyrus Raymond Kelly, a genius in spikes by my reckoning if no one else’s). Praise be, the 2017 Mets, Opening Day roster construction notwithstanding, are poised to indoctrinate a neophyte into their secret society, thereby blessing The Holy Books and ledgerkeepers throughout Metsopotamia with much-desired new meat. Sewald is four days older than Wheeler and has waited five years for as much as a sniff in the bigs. That’s longer than it took for Zack to get back. That’s basically as long as it took Kelvin to get back, and at least Chapman had been here before.

Waiting is all relative. I’ll bet Paul would take a single inning like Zack’s first one from Friday and call it not just a step in the right direction, but a freaking dream come true.