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The Wheeler Lesson (And Trying to Learn It)

On Sunday afternoon the Mets and Nationals played their last game against each other in 2018, and it turned out to be an ordeal: more than four hours of bad baseball played in a continuous rain before irritated Nats fans. The Mets bashed not-ready-for-prime-time Nats pitchers about for eight runs, the Nats did the same to Mets pitchers for six runs, nobody could find the plate, and it was just a mess. When it was finally over, if you’d told me the time of game had been three weeks I wouldn’t have doubted it — it was like the Donner Party with baseballs (and worse pitching).

Maybe it didn’t actually take three weeks, but the game really was the longest nine-inning game in history for both clubs, counting the Nats’ time as the Expos. Which was highly relevant here, because if you squinted a bit you would have believed that was, say, Bruce Boisclair [1] and Barry Foote [2] out there, wailing away pointlessly in front of a tiny, chilled crowd.

I spent much of the game trying not to be too annoyed with Steven Matz [3]. Matz imploded in the third inning in very Matzian fashion. He gave up a home run to Victor Robles [4] which clearly left him pissed at himself and out of sorts. That led, in domino-like fashion, to his walking Trea Turner [5], paying zero attention to Turner and allowing him to swipe second, missing his location badly against Bryce Harper [6] for an RBI double, giving up an unlucky dunker to Anthony Rendon [7], hitting Mark Reynolds [8] and walking Spencer Kieboom [9] with the bases loaded. Matz is best friends with Jacob deGrom [10], and badly needs to learn his pal’s techniques for shaking off misfortune and keeping focus.

So why was I trying not be too annoyed with Matz? Because I was thinking about what’s happened to Zack Wheeler [11] this season. Wheeler’s breakthrough season couldn’t develop without a foundation, and in his case that foundation began with having a sound arm again. That let Wheeler shed post-surgical rust and get into a rhythm where he could develop routines and habits, and those routines and habits, in turn, allowed him enough self-confidence to start putting Dave Eiland [12]‘s lessons into practice. That last link is useless without the rest of the chain, even though it was only at the end of the process that Wheeler got positive results.

Matz is finally healthy, or at least healthyish. That’s the first step and the one without which nothing else can happen. Which is what I kept reminding myself. For Matz to develop the way Wheeler has, he likely needs a couple of months in which he can go about his business as a pitcher without worrying about pain or injury, at least as much as any pitcher can avoid such worries. He needs a routine that will allow him to tinker and learn how to become a pitcher instead of a thrower. Wheeler looks like he’s made that leap; there’s no reason Matz can’t as well. But it’s not a quick or painless a process as anyone would wish.

As for the rest of the game, well, Michael Conforto [13] keeps hitting and Jeff McNeil [14] does nothing else and Anthony Swarzak [15] did yeoman work despite being pushed beyond what should have been fairly expected of him. And the Mets won [16]. They won and here we are at the last off-day before we have 180-odd off-days in a row to endure. That ought to count for something, even when it’s raining walks and plain old rain.